|Whole pickled baby mackerel.
You could feel the tiny skeleton crunch under your teeth.
Omakase is the Japanese word for “entrust” and to order an omakase meal at a high-end Japanese restaurant you have to surrender to the experience, relax your guard, and place your faith in the choices and craft of a master. For omakase the chef shows off his best, most wildly creative, sometimes fantastical dishes designed to engage all the senses — beauty and design and taste combined, you see.
|Beauty and taste. Here we have pickled baby mackerel, sea scallop with gold,
ankimo (monkfish liver) with caviar, kushii oyster with ginger.
Omakase is not necessarily for the sushi novice or the faint of heart. I steadfastly believe that most Japanese food originated as a dare (how else to explain the ritualistic fetishization of the deadly poisonous fugu*), and at omakase you might be confronted with things you’ve never actually considered food. And then the immaculately dressed master will raise an eyebrow or the corner of his mouth in the tiniest gesture meant to say, “I dare you.” At omakase I’ve eaten cod sperm, toro cooked on hot lava rocks, blowfish liver, crispy fish bones, tiny baby eels, geoduck, chicken breast sashimi, sea snails, adolescent abalone, chewy raw clams, shrimp so fresh it was still moving, what looked like microscopic whitebait, and a seemingly endless parade of incredibly fresh nigiri sushi and sashimi. Stuff so fresh it startles, like you’ve only for the very time tasted tuna or mackeral or halibut. Omakase is about discovery and revelation.
|Ankimo with ponzu gelle & caviar. Truly fantastic.|
I’ve had a revelatory omakase meal recently at Kanpai in Westchester. Regina discovered it and took me for my birthday and…it…was…FANTASTIC! This is not to say it’s the best omakase meal to be had in the city. It probably isn’t — so much of the omakase experience is about the day, the time, your mood, the mood of the chef, and what’s in season that you might have wildly different meals at the same place in the same week. I’d caution against ranking one place definitively over another. I’ve had amazing omakase meals at Miro Sushi, Urasawa, the justly closed Hump (you just can’t serve whale meat and expect to escape unscathed), Sasabune, and gone-to-NYC Ginza-Sushi-Ko (in the same spot that Urasawa took). I have yet to go but have been urged to try Sushi Zo and Sushi Masu. Soon, I hope.
|Halibut with truffle and truffle shoyu.|
Kanpai is housed in a totally unassuming strip of Lincoln a mile or two from LAX. The interior is warm and the floor staff is pleasant if not 100% attentive. Our sushi chef was great — funny, obviously talented, creating his little jewels with care, obvious enthusiasm, and efficiency.
We got a combination omakase with mostly sushi and a couple savory items from the kitchen. In order, Regina and I ate the following:
1) sea scallop with a dash of yuzu juice topped with flecks of gold
2) ankimo (monkfish liver) with ponzu gelee and caviar
3) kushii oyster with minced pickled ginger and scallions
4) pickled whole baby mackerel
|Crispy Mountain Yam, Sesame Chicken with Jalapeno, Fried Hama Hama oyster.|
5) fried mountain yam
6) sesame chicken nuggets with slices of fresh jalapeno
7) fried hama hama oyster lightly battered and crusted with panko
8) Spanish mackerel with head and skeleton
|Two kinds of mackerel, plus amazing halibut
|Very fresh and mild king mackerel with ginger and garlic sauces.|
|Orange clam, more mackerel, minced shrimp, sock-eye salmon, edo fish.|
11) orange clam 3 ways — grilled clam edge, cocktail of the scallop, and then clam sushi with hawaiian pink salt
12) sockeye salmon sushi with smoked salt
13) another variety of king mackerel with sweet soy
14) minced shrimp with a dab of fresh wasabi
|Sock-eye salmon & Edo (?)|
|The head had some yummy meat on it and the bones were like potato chips.|
17) some absolutely amazing sea urchin (uni)
18) very fresh snow crab (kani) with a bit of soy
19) salmon roe with fresh ginger
20) crispy lobster roll
|uni & kani|
|succulent salmon roe|
|Crispy lobster roll with avocado in soy wrapper.|
|sea eel, ono, engawa|
21) minced toro with truffled soy (no pic, sorry)
22) broiled sea eel
23) ono sushi with ponzu
24) engawa — halibut fringe
25) fresh homemade strawberry ice
Now this was a huge meal with lots of amazing flavors and textures. It was fascinating, even if I didn’t love every single thing. I did, however, eat everything and enjoyed the meal tremendously as a whole. My favorites were the baby mackerel, the ankimo, the halibut, the king mackerel, the orange clam sushi, the scallop, the fried fish, and the sock-eyed salmon.
Regina felt a bit “mackereled-out” by the end of the meal, and I tend to agree that we seemed to have mackerel in every possible way. Maybe slight overkill. But overall, just dynamite!
I can’t speak to Kanpai as a regular sushi restaurant since we had such a specialized experience. I mean, I can’t judge their California roll or anything like that. I’ve heard that at 10PM every day they switch gears and serve ramen until the close of business. Being a noodle FREAK I’m going to have to give that a try.
Omakase is pricey. Our meal was well over $200 for the two of us. But for a special occasion, if you love sushi and you’re a bit daring, raise your glass and say, “Kanpai!”
*that’s blowfish, y’all!
Kanpai, Japanese Sushi Bar & Grill
- Monday-Friday 11:30am – 1:00am
- Saturday&Sunday 12:00pm – 1:00am