When I think of the best sushi I've ever had, my mind reels back to the Tsukiji Market in Tokyo Japan. It was a cold Saturday morning and the market was bustling. Japanese fisherman was scurrying about, on their large motorised carriers. We queued outside the small shop that has only 10 seats inside. It was cramped but we were certain that this was where the good stuff were. The chef's faces were focused and austere. After they motioned us to the chair, a single empty plate was placed in front of us. After that it was pure theatre.
The chef's long knife cut into the fish like it was butter. Everything was precise and controlled. A motion that has been studied and repeated so many times by chefs even before their time. They stacked the gleaming pieces carefully on top of one another. Then with another hand they dipped into the rice form a small elongated ball and presses the cut fish firmly onto it. This singular piece was then served on the plate, a star on it's own right, followed by another and another. I took the first piece and put it in my mouth.
The soft, buttery taste of the fish combined with the warm rice was pure heaven. Tangy and sweet, it was packed with a flavour I can only described as fresh. It was wonderful and unique, not just the sushi, but the whole experience. My life has always been about sushi on a conveyor belt or on a plate that came from a central kitchen, this was something else. Watching the chef create the pieces right in front of us elevated the dining experience. The care and art that they put into each dish was another intangible ingredient that made the dish whole.
Fast forward 3 years later, I found myself in yet another 10 seats only restaurant. Only this time it was located in the middle of Tanjong Pagar instead of an 83 years old fish market. The interior is also vastly different from the shop that I had visited, pure white with industrial white bricks. the sign outside was also decidedly modern, a beaming neon sign that says Ryo Sushi instead of the traditional Japanese sign. We were there to celebrate our friend's birthday and I was so excited because I've never had a proper Omakase experience before.
Omakase is a Japanese phrase that means "I'll leave it up to you." When a customer orders an Omakase style meal, they expect an innovative menu prepared by the chef that will be both delightfully surprising and unique. The ingredients prepared in the meal can be seasonal and there is never a written menu, so one never knows what to expect. It's a rarified experience and you do have to put your trust onto the chef's hands. Many different restaurants and culture have adopted the Omakase principle into their restaurants, serving a curated menu of burgers or even more interestingly, tacos!
The Omakase experience is often seen as almost an art performance and often involves the best cut of seasonal fish, which explains the price of each meal. In Singapore, one would be hard pressed to find a decent Omakase meal for less than $100. It is an experience reserved for the wealthy or in hardcore culinary enthusiast, who are willing to shell out $100 to $200 for a meal. Fortunately, Singapore has been seeing a emergence of a more affordable option for such meals, even for something as basic as everyone's favourite donburi. (Read my article for $10 donburihere!) Ryo Sushi is definitely within that category of affordable and modern dining place that provides the full culinary experience at half the price, and honestly thank the Food God for that!
The performance begins with our entree, the Hijiki Seaweed Salad and Edamame. Placed carefully on the side of the plate, the black stringy salad was wonderfully oceanic. I was already hungry, but this started made me even more so. I started gobbling on the edamame which was fresh and crunchy, it's skin slightly salted to give that wonderful contrast to the sweet flesh inside the bean.
Next we had the Truffled Onsen Egg and let me honestly tell you, I've never had anything like it. I've had plenty of onsen eggs in my life of course, but nothing quite like this. The egg was sweet and smoke, the bursts of saltiness that comes from the roe. The egg itself in wonderfully creamy and milky. The egg yolk and the sauce that it's sitting on mixes wonderfully together. If you close you eyes for a moment you can almost forget the fact that you're eating an egg, and not a finished dish. Well, that certainly wetted my appetite!
The excitement in the air was palpable as we watch the chef prepares the fish for the sushi. The head chef, Roy, was extremely friendly, and I began to understand the charm of having an Omakase meal. The process of cooking and serving suddenly becomes very personal. He wasn't serving the food for our sustenance, he was serving an idea. The ingredients were like words and he was preparing a prose for us to enjoy. Though to some this might seem as silly and slightly grandiose, only through having the experience, and tasting the different flavours did I come to fully appreciate the level of dedication and attention that was paid to each piece of sushi that we had that night.
One: Tai or Sea Bream
Here comes the first sushi of the night. The rice was amazingly sweet layered with a tangy bite from the fish at the end. The sea bream was soft and almost buttery, combined with a slight saltiness that comes from the light brush of sauce on the top. From this first sushi it becomes immediately clear to me the difference between having a sushi at Omakase as compare to having in a conveyor belt restaurant. The cut of the fish was perfect, not too much or too little. The rice was still warm and contrasted perfectly with the fresh slice of fish on top. In Japan, a very special type of sea bream, known as Madai is considered the highest of it's range and as rare as shark fin. It also sounds like Medetai, which means auspicious or celebratory, making it one of the most common fish to be served during birthdays or weddings.
Two: Ika or Squid
In Omakase it is known that the dishes are being served often starts with lightest combination and the progressively gets more heavy in taste and quantity. What I was about to discover however, is that it also gets more interesting in terms of texture as well. I've eaten squid before, and I've definitely tried squid as a part of a Japanese dinner. However this is the first time I've experience a texture such as this. The squid was smoky and crunchy, with a chewy center. Again the light brush on sauce on the squid provides a lift in the overall taste of the sushi.
Three: Hotate or Scallop
Bring out the blow torch! just when you think scallop can't get any better, they blazed it up. The result? Melt in your mouth, indulgent flavours with a delicious burnt aftertaste. The complex smoky taste brought out the sweetness of the rice even more.
Four: Sawara or Spanish Mackerel
Spoiler alert: this particular sushi was my favourite in the whole line up! Buttery and packed with soft, caramel like notes, its incredibly hard to image that fish can taste this way. Bite into the rice and note that a slight salty taste complements the sweet flavour of the fish. Spanish Mackerel is known to be the largest amongst it's family of mackerels and has a whiter flesh in comparison. They are also known to be extremely popular during the spring or summer time.
Five: Kinmedai or Golden Eye Seabream
To be honest, we had to google this fish after we finished this piece. Kinmedai or Golden Eye Sea Bream is a deep water fish. Their eyes are larger than normal fish due to the lack of light in their living environment. It makes me wonder if the deep water also contributes to the fatty, thick, and chewy characters of the fish. Apparently when the fish is captured between December and March (which is the time that we had this piece), the fish gets particularly oily and tasty. Take another bite into the sushi piece however, and you'll notice the brash spicy notes that accompanies it.
Six: Ebi or Prawn
Ebi Nigiri is well known to be one of the most popular sushi, due to its easy availability and delicious taste. Which is why I was quite amazed by this simple dish when we tried it. Butterflied and slightly torched, the prawn was slightly crunchy and sweet, which a delicious smoky aftertaste from the charred exterior. I feel like the Omakase is really worth it due to dishes like this alone. As much as I've tried many different types and permutations of prawn, I can honestly say that this is one of the best.
Seven: Maguro or Tuna
As we enter the "second act" of the dinner, I feel that it's only appropriate that we start with the Maguro, or Tuna. As expected the tuna itself was so tender, though lacking the melt in your mouth quality, but satisfactorily buttery. The surprise for me was actually the orange skin shavings that was added on top, adding the burst of citrus flavour. The result? an extremely bold and punchy combination all the way till the end. For a while now, tuna has been the center of the debate of many sustainable fishing practices. Due to it's popularity, many species of tuna has been declining in number and in size. I still remember when we visited the fish market in Tokyo, this beautiful fish was gracing almost every cutting table. I was told however that even though it seems very large, they're considered to be tiny as compared to the generations that were caught 30 to 40 years ago.
Eight: Chūtoro or Fatty Tuna with Shoyu Foam
Like everything good in life, it is often the most sinful that packs the best flavour. The fatty tuna was incredibly creamy and sweet, which was heavily contrasted by the dense wall of flavour that comes from the soya foam. The marriage between the bitter sweet shoyu foam and buttery notes of of tuna was incredible. What makes the pairing work is perhaps due to the fact that the it is found near the skin between the back and the belly, combining the bitter characteristics that is closer to akami, or the red meat of the tuna and otoro, or the fatty part of the tuna.
Nine: Otoro or Pink Fatty Tuna
As we graduates from the chutoro, the otoro brings it's own taste profile to the table. Otoro is known to be the most desired part of the tuna. It's often found on the belly of the tuna, and graded the same way as one would grade the marbling on a steak. A great otoro is often judged by the white "oily" lines that is interwoven in the pink flesh of the tuna. Since this is the case, otoro if often best after a long wintry season, which lets the tuna grow a layer of fat. Combined with the rice, the otoro has an acidic, tangy and slight crunchy taste, finished with it's brand of sweetness.
Ten: Aji or Horse Mackerel
Unlike the Spanish Mackerel that we had earlier, the Horse Mackerel is smaller in size in the wild and lighter in taste. Though it is often served in the summer, this dish was perfect in it's line up. After the slew of decadent and buttery tuna nigiri, the Horse Mackerel comes as a refreshing surprise. Combined with the rice it has the perfect umami of sweet and salty flavour and complimented heavily with the light serving of scallion on top. As we are reaching towards the end of our meal, the Mackerel serves as a great piece. This particular one that we had was cured with salt and vinegar and aged for a week. Though it was developed to prevent food poisoning, this becomes a great mark of a great sushi chef.
Eleven: Sake Aburi or Torched Salmon
Who doesn't love Salmon Aburi? I mean honestly, something special just happens to salmon when you slightly torch it that elevates it to something else completely. This piece was so decadent and buttery I almost cried. I can honestly say it was one of the most indulgent piece of salmon I've eaten in my life. This piece alone is worth going for this Omakase.
Twelve: Shirako or Cod Fish Sperm
Here comes the biggest plot twist of the entire Omakase experience! The "Red Wedding" in the season finale if you will (Holla if you love Game of Thrones). Never, ever, ever, in my life have I had anything that resembles this dish. Though to be fair cod sperm doesn't just pop up in many hawkers in Singapore (lol). As it turns out, Cod's fish's mating season is a short one, which makes this dish a delicacy towards the end of February. The sperm itself is actually held intact within the sacs, and when it comes to flavour it was creamy and oceanic. It has salty notes that reminds me of seaweed. Not at all how I imagined it would be.
As we progress to the next (and sadly last part) of the Omakase, the dishes becomes increasingly heavier. We were served the Kani Maki or Crab Roll, which even though it wasn't the prettiest looking in the bunch, was one of the most memorable pieces of the night due to it's flavour. It was the full flavour of the sea packed in a crunchy seaweed wrap. So fresh and crispy it would be amazing just eaten on it's own. There was a slight hint of caramel at the end which I found to be wonderfully amazing.
We were then served the Seaweed Soup, which simultaneously blew my mind and filled me with regret for not asking specifically what was in it. The soup itself was clear but packed with so much umami that it should be illegal.
It was the perfect palette cleanser before we go into the Chirashi Don that we had at the end. The Don was packed to the bring with fresh salmon roe and tender fish cubes. Scattered liberally on top were the juicy fish roe, which burst with such heavenly salty flavour it coats the rice, rendering the other sauces useless.
For $68, is the Omakase experience really worth it?
For me, the answer is: YES. It is honestly totally worth it. If you're a Japanese food lover or a foodie in general, going to an Omakase dinner is a totally different culinary experience. Looking purely at the culinary cultural history alone, you do feel the refinement that can only be moulded and refined by the hands of sushi chefs through time. Diving into research on the different ingredients and fish that were served during the dinner also shocked me in terms of how much knowledge each sushi chef must've had when preparing each dish. Thorough care and love is put in to each piece of sushi, the chef carefully shaping each one of their creation based on the person that is sitting across from them. All this for $68? Wah it's damn worth it man!