High-end omakase experiences became a standout dining trend in Chicago last year, offering sushi aficionados a front-row seat to multi-course meals that showcase the freshest fish available. Traditionally, the sushi chefs stationed behind the counter hand-press warm rice and adorn it with swaths of raw fish before handing over each morsel to diners lined up on the other side of the counter. But as restaurants cautiously reopen, that intimate, hands-on style of service is no longer feasible—nor is the signature counter seating that's synonymous with omakase dining.
Chef Kaze Chan, a celebrated industry vet who helms the kitchen at Sushi-san, has come up with a clever solution: a 14-course omakase dinner that's presented tableside, one course at a time. Instead of being lined up at a counter, guests are seated throughout the dining room, which is operating at 25 percent capacity, in accordance with the city's current guidelines. Chan preps each course behind the sushi counter before the bites are dispersed throughout the dining room by servers.
Though he misses the one-on-one experience of standing directly across from guests, Chan says he's still able to control the speed of service, delivering hit after hit in a carefully choreographed fashion.
"The goal here is to provide and translate that intimate omakase experience," says Amarit Dulyapaibul, partner of Sushi-san and Ramen-san. "We recognize that in this environment, you don't want someone standing 3 feet from you handing you a piece of sushi one by one. That's for our safety and our guests' safety right now."
Available on Friday and Saturday nights, with reserved seatings at 5, 7 and 9pm, the expansive menu is priced at $98 per person. A sample 14-course lineup boasts hyper-seasonal cuts of kanpachi, sawara, akami and otoro. Guests can toss in sake pairings ($35–$75) as well as luxe bites, including tuna cheek and foie gras ($20).
"Depending on the ingredients and what [Chan] is able to receive from the fishermen, he'll put together not only what the 14 or 15 courses look like, but also how they complement one another and the sequence in which it arrives at your table," Dulyapaibul says.
Sushi-san isn't the only omakase restaurant in Chicago switching up its model: Kyōten in Logan Square recently introduced private dining that allows one table of two to four people to book the entire restaurant for the evening. Understandably, pricing ranges from $500 to $600 for the exclusive experience, with a menu tailored to the party's unique preferences. Chef-owner Otto Phan notes that the price increase is temporary, adding that they will "reassess in a couple months, and hopefully prices can decrease as our environment becomes more stable as restaurants reopen."
Omakase Takeya in the West Loop is boxing up its signature dining experience to go—$29 omakase boxes are stuffed with five pieces of sushi and unagi and crab futomaki. Just down the street, Omakase Yume plans to reopen on July 23, with reservation-only seating that's spaced out to meet Chicago's social-distancing guidelines.
By nature, omakase experiences throughout the city will continue to be affected in unique ways, but Dulyapaibul feels confident that they'll be able to counter with distinctive solutions for sushi-obsessed Chicagoans.
"Through this entire crisis, we've been challenged to translate hospitality," Dulyapaibul says. "Kaze has been great. He loves to be able to take care of every guest personally. He's still able to make that personal connection from the other side of the counter, albeit from 6 feet away."
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