As Chicago’s COVID-19 case rates continue to drop and officials take a more optimistic tone than locals have heard in months, the city’s largest restaurant group is preparing to unveil an ambitious new project. Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises on Thursday will open the Omakase Room at Sushi-San, an opulent and intimate 10-seat dining cove tucked inside Sushi-San, the company’s casual five-year-old sushi restaurant in River North.
Many diners in Chicago are now familiar with omakase, the expensive and highly formalized style of Japanese dining centered around multiple courses of seasonal, chef-selected dishes. But patrons at the Omakase Room shouldn’t expect a traditional rendition of the form: instead of a ritualized and generally silent performance, chefs Kaze Chan and Shigeru Kitano (Momotaro, Japonais by Morimoto) will provide an entertaining experience with music and conversation alongside the ever-changing 18-course menu.
“Everything we’ve done is designed to break down barriers between chefs and and patrons,” says partner Amarit Dulyapaibul. “The goal here is to showcase the most special ingredients and techniques but do so in a manner that is comfortable, approachable, and fun.”
Perched inside an upstairs loft above Sushi-San, the Omakase Room’s design provides a literal interpretation of that barrier-breaking ethos: the chefs’ workspace is arranged to align with the sushi bar, giving customers an unobstructed view of each step and, the team hopes, demystifying a culinary genre that some Westerners find intimidating.
For Chan, the new restaurant also an opportunity to stay sharp and push the boundaries of the tradition-bound omakase he’s encountered overseas. “For me, [omakase in Japan] is boring... you can try any omakase place and it taste the same everywhere,” he says. Born in Vietnam to a Chinese family, he plans to set the Omakase Room apart by weaving in the flavors he grew up with alongside other international influences. The menu will change often — even daily — based on the line-caught fish sourced by the Yamasaki family, famed purveyors at Tokyo’s Toyosu Fish Market. For the opening, he’ll feature selections such as otoro, or fatty tuna (served with caviar and duck egg); akagai, or red clam (yuzu, lime); and wagyu (fresh wasabi) from Hokkaido.
“Combining things to bring out new flavors in the fish is fun for me,” Chan says. “If I have an Italian or French ingredient — whatever I think is best for each different kind of fish — I’ll use it to bring out another flavor.”
Those who want to further elevate an already-expensive evening (seatings go for $250 per person) can dive into the Omakase Room’s bar menu from LEYE beverage director Kevin Beary (Three Dots and a Dash, The Bamboo Room). It’s centered around a collection of more than 100 types of Japanese whisky — a much larger and more diverse assortment than most 10-seat omakase restaurants could offer, Dulyapaibul explains, but his access to the restaurant group’s staff and resources allows for special offerings.
Drinkers will also be able to choose among a robust selection of sakes and wines, as well as cocktails like a Japanese Whisky Old Fashioned (banana-washed Nikka Yoichi single malt, banana cordial, Okinawa sugar) and Guilty by Association (pineapple-infused Armagnac blanche, cold-pressed honeydew juice).
The team at the Omakase Room aren’t the only ones in town taking an atypical approach to omakase. Others playing with the concept, albeit for far less coin, include New York City-based mini-chain Sushi by Bou, known for serving $50 omakase meals in 30 minutes, which opened inside the Hotel Lincoln in January.
Dulyapaibul and his staff aim to hit a middle ground with an over-the-top experience that’s still warm and friendly. “For us, omakase is really about a special experience and having items that are luxurious and made with craft and care,” he says. “That’s not antithetical to being comfortable or having fun.”