There’s a reason sushi devotees are hiding in queues of hundreds deep inside the Resy app waiting to pounce on a cancellation for omakase at Royal Sushi & Izakaya. Reservations are made a month in advance and the few places not already reserved by loyal customers disappear in seconds. So, a stray last-minute opening is a score worthy of the tuna, uni, and gold-plated caviar open sandwich on duck milk toast that chef-owner Jesse Ito has been serving up lately. True treasure of Philadelphia. And it happens.
“Every night there are new people,” Ito says.
The commotion is deserved because Ito is simply in a full omakase league. He touches each of the 17 pieces of hand-molded rice and rare imported fish that 16 lucky diners eagerly pay $175 each night to devour, then open their wallets to buy more for add-ons. (Come to Papa, tuna sandwich!) Ito has perfected a style all his own over the past two years that draws stunning complexity from subtly hidden layers. Paired with the most accessible à la carte izakaya ahead of which remains our top destination for traditional Japanese cuisine, Royal Sushi & Izakaya (780 S. 2nd St., 267-909-9002; royalizakaya.com) easily Still ranks among my top 10 restaurants in Philadelphia for 2022.
But it’s not Philly’s only omakase. In fact, others seem to be opening every two months as the omakase tasting format offers efficiencies – predictable food costs, targeted menus and sometimes prepaid reservations – which restaurants struggling with labor shortages can benefit. The three-digit prices of these luxury menus only go up , given the huge cost increases for everything from basic English cucumbers which have almost quadrupled, to the precious bigeye tuna which has doubled. But when all is well, there are few dining experiences for special occasions more intimate, more focused on craftsmanship and premium ingredients than a sublime sushi meal cooked before your eyes.
But are they worth it? I have tested several.
READ MORE: The Inquirer’s 2022 Restaurant Guide
I’ve been looking forward to Kevin Yanaga’s solo debut since he became a staple of the Philadelphia sushi scene after coming to work at Morimoto, Zama, then Michael Schulson’s Izakaya and Double Knot. But it took almost a year after its partners at Glu Hospitality opened the a la carte tavern portion of this restaurant in 2021, Izakaya by Yanaga, to build the spectacular black omakase counter at the back of its Fishtown space. The izayaka’s first year was turbulent due to labor shortages, which resulted in inconsistent service and food, and the inability to hire a senior izakaya chef other than Yanaga. since February.
Yanaga, however, was finally able to focus on his sushi scene in the dramatically lit back room. The Kawasaki-bred chef is backlit, hopping to a Japanese rap soundtrack and brandishing Yves Saint Laurent chopsticks to whip up a feast of crunchy jellyfish salad over mozuku seaweed, hot eel over a silky chawanmushi cream and a suite of prime raw fish over excellent rice seasoned with a blend of five vinegars. Kombu dried scallop. Goldeneye snapper. Smoked salmon counter in a glass box. The optional sake pairing, ($80 for six), brought in some excellent pours, including the Poconos’ intriguing Sango Kura.
Yanaga’s omakase is Philly’s most expensive at $195, but also its biggest meal at 25 courses.
“Is it sufficient?” Yanaga jokes with his adoring crowd as he adds toppings to the grand finale of his “Big Daddy” futomaki roll with several cuts of tuna.
It’s too much, in fact, for at least three courses. But I can’t fault anything Yanaga for his excessive exuberance and willingness to make sure customers don’t leave a hoagie hungry. His long-awaited return to the sushi counter is already a victory.
Omakase by Yanaga, located inside Izakaya by Yanaga, 1832 Frankford Ave., 267-310-3554; byyanaga.com
When Xiangyu “Sam” Lin made his Sakana debut in 2019, the New York-trained sushi chef positioned his Queen Village counter as a relative omakase bargain, with $108 tastings served in 70 minutes flat. But then came the doubling of fish prices due to the pandemic. Lin’s strategy since has been to focus on upgrading across the board, closing for renovations this summer to give the facade and venue a minimalistic makeover, reducing staff and moving from 14 to 10 seats, and now import more premium Japanese fish daily varieties. It’s now $148 for about 20 plates, which is still cheaper than most, with more savings when BYOB is taken into account.
What Lin may lack in splashy vibe, he makes up for in quality and surprises, from the yuzu foam kumamoto that kicked off our omakase, to the grand finale of a smoke-filled bubble that burst over a bowl. of uni, scallop and Wagyu in tangy yuzu jelly. There were also several fish I had yet to taste in Philadelphia, the Japanese melon sweetfish (ayu) and the rose-shaped Manila clam, whose delicate flesh broke apart with a surf-tinged sweetness. Even more memorable: Lin’s double toro consisting of a fresh pink tuna belly on a slice of wine-red toro carefully aged for 40 days. The due had a savory depth that lingered long after the meal was over. 616 S. 2nd St., 215-922-2149; phillysakana.com
Hiroki Fujiyama’s omakase room has been Royal Sushi’s closest competitor since it opened in 2019 in the back of Wm. Mulherin’s Sons, tucked behind a concrete porthole hiding one of Philadelphia’s prettiest dining rooms. With its teak floors, white oak countertops and leather chairs, it’s always a chic oasis for premium fish interspersed with intriguing cooked bites such as conger eel with miso mustard or a shabu shabu of fines. Wagyu slices with truffles. There were also some standout sushi bites, like buttered swordfish and the combination of uni and caviar on Wagyu ribeye and rice chips.
But Fujiyama was absent on my last two visits over the past two years, and I have missed his presence, both in the impersonal presentation of a very personal meal and in the lack of execution detail. In particular, the otherwise excellent rice, which is meant to be served hot, was sat too long to achieve the desired effect. The most engaging aspect of this $155 meal was my exceptional server, Dustin Davis, whose impressive knowledge of sake made the clever drink pairings (six for $65) absolutely worthwhile. Hiroki, corner of Lee and Master streets (behind Wm. Mulherin’s Sons), 2150422-3222; hirokisan.com
Masaharu Morimoto’s original restaurant offered Philadelphia’s first omakase when the Iron Chef debuted with partner Stephen Starr in 2001 in their beautiful Chestnut Street space with bright booths and wave-like walls. He was also singularly influential, launching the careers of Hiroki Fujiyama and Kevin Yanaga (both on this list) plus Hiroyuki “Zama” Tanaka.
Morimoto still offers inventive destination restaurants, and the $165 omakase remains a fresh and worthy splurge. It’s different from most on this list in that it features mostly cooked foods – nori-wrapped halibut; butter-poached lobster on a warm, charred barrel stave; plain pasta. Seven pieces of seasonal sushi are served on a platter as the last savory dish. Were they fantastic? Yes, from pristine fish with subtle flourishes to perfectly polished rice. But the artistry of the sushi master in this omakase felt too much like an afterthought. Morimoto, 723 Chestnut St, 2154-13-9070; morimotorestaurant.com
Omakase was owner Harrison Kim’s solution. After being closed for six months to recover from pandemic exhaustion, it saw costs contained, menu focused and limited work in producing a pre-paid tasting menu like exactly what Sushi Hatsu needed. need to get back on track. It worked. But once business and enough staff returned for this elegant Ambler restaurant to open four a la carte nights, the omakases retreated to pop-up monthly events. They also unfortunately showed the potential pitfalls of going for the occasional omakase when neither the service staff nor the kitchen are in sync or up to presenting a meal worth $135.
During my omakase at the end of August, the rice was dry and bland. The accompanying sauces overwhelmed the fish with unbalanced acidity. The server kept touting each ingredient as “top of the line” – like that wasn’t the expectation already. And the dishes themselves were always disappointing: a Hokkaido scallop chopped into unfortunate chunks, a standard piece of eel so stiff and sharp it stung when I took a bite of it; and caviar from pedestrian pedal boats misrepresented as “local”. (Me: “You mean Schuylkill?” Waiter: “No…Wisconsin”).
I’m rooting for Sushi Hatsu to reclaim its pre-pandemic groove as one of Ambler’s strong points. But until he can consistently produce something truly special, he should fire omakase. Sushi Hatsu, 51 E. Butler Ave., Ambler, 267-705-2485; sushihatsu.com