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Omakase vs. Kaiseki - What's The Difference?


darkstar965
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This is from a poster using the screen name "Professor Salt" and was posted in 2007 on Chowhound.  I found it interesting and thought some here might also.  I know many here have real expertise and experience with Japanese cuisine so please just ignore if you do.  Hillvalley's 'last meal' post just got me looking around and, when I found this, I thought okay to share.

Answers the question:  What's the difference between kaiseki and omakase?

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"Two different things entirely. Real traditional kaiseki cooking is hard to find in the US for reasons I'll describe below.

"Omakase" is short for "omakase shimasu", which means roughly, "I trust you [the chef]." In its American food usage, it's mistakenly interpreted as a tasting menu at a sushi restaurant, but it's deeper than that.

It means you're placing what courses come out to the chef's judgment, based on 1. what he's got that day that's really good and 2. his rapport with you and your preferences on what you find delicious or not. Your prior relationship with the chef (if any), his ESP-like ability to read your reactions to his food, are all part of his skill in delivering an outstanding (or not) experience. The chef can adjust which courses he serves based on that immediate feedback, which is different from the Western notion of a tasting menu, where the chef can't watch your reactions.

The omakase style of dining happens not only at sushi restaurants, but also other Japanese types of cookery, like kushiyaki (grilled skewers) or kushiage (fried skewers) to name but two. In these cases, a course of two or three skewers are served as a set, and you can say when you've had enough. If you keep going, the chef will serve the couple dozen items he thinks you'll enjoy, and the menu will repeat until you explode.

Another aspect of the omakase style of eating is that prices aren't (traditionally) listed on a menu, it's market price and you'll get your bill at the end. This practice isn't as common in the US because it's not the way Americans do things. However, if you're going to Japan, it's still done. This is an aspect that makes many people feel uncomfortable. If you don't feel good about trusting the chef with the entire experience including the value vs. cost part of it, I'd say don't do it at all until you're comfortable with that chef's abilities to deliver a meal you'll enjoy implicitly. If you can't trust, you're missing the spirit of the whole experience.

Kaiseki dining is super-traditional formal dining with a set course of menu items, served with a rigorous attention to detail. You'll have private screened off room for your party, and "sit" Japanese style (zaseki), kneeling on mats on a tatami floor at a low table (if you're old school and super formal about it). Foods are prepared in the kitchen, and brought in succession by formally dressed servers. There's no direct customer to chef feedback as you'd have at a sushi bar. You get what you get, and that's that.

A key principle of kaiseki cooking is to use only seasonal ingredients from the local area. You should not find ocean fishes served at a kaiseki restaurant far from the sea, for example. You will find fishes caught in nearby rivers, or produce gathered from the local forests. These ingredients are then prepared with precise knife techniques to make them look beautiful before they're even cooked. They're then prepared with the five fundamental methods of cooking, so you'll get courses which are steamed, simmered, fried, grilled, and raw.

Because of the emphasis on local ingredients and hyper-freshness of seasonal items, as well as low demand for the formality of the whole experience, it's hard to find kaiseki restaurants in the US which really toe the line of tradition. Hope that helps with a basic description."

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Not all kaiseki restaurants in the US have zaseki seating, thank goodness.  It's really hard on my arthritic knees.  Makoto is the closest you will come to kaiseki in the region.  We enjoyed a much more expensive kaiseki meal in Maui a number of years back, with more attention to the appearance of the food, to the point of preciousness.  Mushrooms had been carved to look like eggs, etc.

We like Makoto a lot, though they are importing many ingredients and not just sticking to local items.  Not everything is a hit with us at each meal, but each meal brings at least one dish that is a revelation about what can be done with top notch ingredients.

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Not all kaiseki restaurants in the US have zaseki seating, thank goodness.  It's really hard on my arthritic knees.  Makoto is the closest you will come to kaiseki in the region.  We enjoyed a much more expensive kaiseki meal in Maui a number of years back, with more attention to the appearance of the food, to the point of preciousness.  Mushrooms had been carved to look like eggs, etc.

We like Makoto a lot, though they are importing many ingredients and not just sticking to local items.  Not everything is a hit with us at each meal, but each meal brings at least one dish that is a revelation about what can be done with top notch ingredients.

There used to be a Japanese restaurant in Washington Harbor with tatami rooms.

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Interesting and Thank You.  I am going to Morimoto's in Philadelphia Saturday night and I noticed the word Omakase on the menu (at three different price points), I really didn't know what it meant but many many reviews said go for it at the middle price point ($120pp).

Any opinion's or feedback is appreciated.

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According to Shizuo Tsuji's "Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art", the order for a formal banquet is: Appetizer (zensai; literally "front plate"), clear soup (suimono), sashimi, grilled food (yakimono), steamed food (mushimono), simmered food (nimono), fried food (agemono)*, vinegared or dressed salad (sunomono or aemono, respectively); then together at the end, rice (gohan), miso soup, and pickles; followed by green tea and fresh fruit.

At Japanese-style inns (ryokan), you often get a kaiseki meal.  In our experience (limited to the Tohoku/northeastern region), most of the dishes are waiting for you when you arrive in the dining room, and only the yakimono is brought out after you're seated so that you can have it hot and fresh.

*Tsuji says the yakimono, mushimono, nimono, and agemono can be replaced by a one-pot dish (nabemono). I recall getting a kiritampo nabe (specialty of Akita Prefecture, simmered dish of chicken, various vegetables, and kiritampo, a grilled pounded rice cake-like thing) at one ryokan, as well as a couple of the other dishes that could theoretically be replaced by the nabemono. One of them was a perfect chawanmushi (egg custard). :wub:

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