When Kobachi, an izakaya style restaurant, opened up in Santa Barbara a few years ago, a foodie friend and I started an experiment. How would the kitchen react if we asked for omakase each time we visited? All Japanese know what the word omakase means (“it’s up to you"; entrust) but besides very dedicated high-end sushi bars, few Japanese restaurants are equipped to handle such a request.
Given these odds, it was surprising how we kept persevering. We never pushed and until recently the results could have been anyone’s guess. I’ve had the following experiences:
- Flat out denied (kitchen is too busy, or just plain no)
- Asked how much I want to spend (tricky situation for both parties)
- Was allowed omakase and I got to tell them when I was full. Then an arbitrary total was presented.
- Was told that there was a set price and a set number of dishes
It seems from talking to my friend and my recent experience this weekend that the last choice is what the chef has settled on. It is not a true omakase in that two out of the three variables (food, number of dishes, and price) are set, but I suppose it still holds the spirit of chef’s choice.
I hadn’t been to Kobachi for about two months and have not had omakase from there for at least twice as long. When I found myself without any dining companions and a craving for Japanese, I packed up some Saveur, Food and Wine and GOOD magazines and went to the restaurant alone. I asked for omakase and was immediately met with excited confusion. The waitress went to consult with the other workers and then the chef and she returned giving me a whole spiel and then a price. I accepted.
What came next was one part chaos and one part deliciousness. The food, as always, was great, and the first dish was a great example of the inventiveness of the chef when given carte blanche power over his dishes. At the same time, the dish represented a major issue with the experience. I was served two whole blocks of tofu, each with separate toppings. On one there were thinly shaved onions, a miso paste, and avocado slices. The other had a vinegary sauce and salmon roe. It was enough for a full meal. That’s right, I was full after the first course.
The next three courses came out at once. All at once. Now on my tiny 2-top, I had 4 courses. By now I was struggling to eat as much of the food as I could. When I was done and told the waitress I didn’t want any boxes, she exclaimed “are you serious?!” clearly upset and appalled that (it seemed) I hadn’t even touched one of the dishes. When she picked up my credit card slipped, I offered a few suggestions – smaller portions and stagger the dishes. I assured her that the chef was being too generous with his portions and I would gladly still pay the same price for half the food.
I hope that over time, Kobachi finds it’s omakase “identity” sort to speak and it becomes more formalized. I should caution though that I never want it to be a prix fixe or even a pseudo-prix fixed like Julienne. There needs to be an element of freedom and mystery in a omakase but not confusion.
Kobachi remains, in my opinion, the most innovative and one of the most tasty Japanese restaurants in SB. They certainly are under no obligation to agree to an omakase request and I am certainly glad when they do. I think with proper friendly feedback they can make a good thing great.