The word omakase, uttered in Japanese temples of fish and rice, once unlocked an exclusive world of masterful sushi for fat-wallet gourmands. No longer solely synonymous with serious or extravagant, omakase (meaning “chef’s choice”) is now common parlance for a generation of NYC diners eager to put their fate (but not necessarily their entire paycheck) into the hands of the chef. Most recently, the “affordable” (a relative term) omakase movement has rendered two spots where killer fish won’t cost you all your clams: Sushi Ishikawa and Sushi by Boū.
Sushi Ishikawa on the Upper East Side has the more formal posture of the two, a tidy brick-walled room with low-lit tables on one side and a bright 11-seat wood counter on the other. There, Vietnamese-born chef Don Pham (O Ya, Morimoto) basks in the newfound freedom of his very first restaurant by doing whatever the hell he wants: One moment he graces silky shrimp with a gloriously untraditional crown of torched ramp butter and bottarga, the next he constructs a stacked marvel from three kinds of uni (Russian, Chilean, Santa Barbaran) and a flurry of black truffle, all the while playfully teasing the sake-soaked know-it-alls at the end of the bar. Pham’s ever-changing omakase ($85 for 12 courses, $125 for 15) is a leisurely string of immaculate nigiri (like hay-smoked skipjack tuna faintly reminiscent of ham) punctuated by border-crossing plated preparations (like Southeast Asia–influenced king salmon with fried shallots, Thai basil and buzzing chili vinaigrette). A tuna hand roll bulging with enough ikura to spawn a salmon colony is a fitting bang-for-your-buck finale. While the 12-course omakase still runs more than $100 with tax and tip, it’s cheaper than many and better than most.
For a city swimming in prickly-priced sushi spots, these newfangled rookies offer welcome bargains. Seems like omakase is finally speaking our language.