‘I’ll leave it up to you.’ Isn’t that a lovely, life-affirming phrase? It’s also a whole way of dining in Japan, summed up economically in one word: ‘omakase’. It simply means that you entrust your meal to the chef, as they know what’s fresh and tasty better than anyone, right?
Before we get too excited, a warning. As a concept, omakase is spenny; and at minimal new Fitzrovia opening Rai, we’re talking special-occasion spenny. Here, dinner is art, with each plate – nope, we’re not even talking food yet – made from eye-catching recycled materials and worthy of a ’gram post on its own. As is the interior: arriving at opening time, my friend and I bagged two coveted spots at the stylish, rose-adorned counter so we could watch the chefs calmly at work.
The omakase element defines the sashimi and sushi: whether you order à la carte or a tasting menu (from £70 to £150 per person) you’ll be served whatever raw fish is in that day (if it’s anything like our visit, salmon and tuna will feature heavily).
For additional wow factor, everything was presented on an outsize driftwood sculpture – cameras out
Throughout, knowledgeable server Chris was on hand with the kind of detail that makes a meal an education. Take the soy sauce – I mean, have you given the stuff any thought before? ‘It’s aged for five years to maximise the umami flavours,’ he said, pouring it into petite bowls. He then produced a fat finger of vegetable that looked like a celeriac’s skinny-bitch green rellie. ‘Ever seen a fresh wasabi?’ he asked. ‘No!’ we yelped, mesmerised. ‘It takes three years to grow on riverbanks near Mount Fuji, and twelve months to fully mature,’ he said, methodically mashing it into a paste. Its flavour proved more delicate than commercial preparations, which add horseradish, and along with the ancient soy, it perfectly complemented the sashimi omakase: rosy slices of Bluefin tuna, silken folds of Scottish salmon and otoro, melt-in-the-mouth belly of tuna. For additional wow factor, everything was presented on an outsize driftwood sculpture – cameras out.
What else did we learn? Well, that chef-owner Padam Raj Rai’s schtick is fusing British and European ingredients with traditional Japanese cooking techniques. So, a mound of Scottish salmon tartare on a yellow pool of yuzu miso was topped with a teeny bird’s nest of leek and grated 60-month-aged parmesan – raw fish and cheese alert! – alongside slices of British pear and a pomegranate seed or two. It shouldn’t have worked, but it really did. Another successful fusion was a pebble-filled tray of glistening Orkney scallops in their shells on a smooth parsnip puree – the best I’ve ever tasted – with a sweet pickled-plum sauce, slithers of plum and spicy ponzu. Even a blood-orange-and-seaweed side salad was exquisitely balanced.
But it wasn’t all sea critters. There was the world’s finest wagyu, too – the highly marbled Kagoshima A5 grade, in case you’re making notes at the back. The four ruddy slices, each the size of a fat gastropub chip, were succulent and juicy, accompanied by al dente tenderstem broccoli for crunch. And, of course, yet more ponzu.
The one dessert you have to try is the slither of wagyu white chocolate: studded with pistachio, yuzu, rosemary, thyme and mixed berries, it contains 40 percent beef fat, something that ‘would otherwise be wasted’, said Chris. The result was nutty, fruity and savoury at the same time.
There was one more lesson before we left. Furoshiki is the art of wrapping a gift in cloth for guests: presented with ours, we loosened the bow and inside a wooden box were two petits fours, one white with a yuzu filling, one dark with whisky. Washed down with Chef Padam’s homemade rice wine, they provided a memorably sweet ending to an enlightening evening of omakase.
The vibe Grown-up dining in a minimal interior with super-friendly staff and swift service.
The food Unique twists on raw fish, world-class wagyu and theatrical presentation. That salmon tartare.
The drink Try the Kamoizumi umeshu sake, with its piquant, floral notes.
Time Out tip Bag a spot at the counter for the most immersive way to experience the cuisine.