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Intimidated by dining at your first omakase? Don’t be

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Dining can give you a wonderful bit of culture shock.

I remember the nerves I felt the first time I went to an omakase. It was Sushi by Bou in Jersey City, which is an entirely approachable, friendly restaurant, making my anxiety entirely unnecessary (as it usually is). 

An omakase is essentially a Japanese tasting menu. At an omakase restaurant, you typically sit at a counter and a chef prepares single pieces of sushi in front of you and presents them to you to eat in courses. You have no control over what type of raw fish will be put in front of you. For picky eaters, this could be a sticking point.

Not for me. I’ll pretty much try anything (one of the requirements of this job). But, I was nervous about the process. How does it work? How do I know when it’s over? How much do I tip? Do I pay before or after? Is it rude to ask questions? 

Sushi by Bou is a speakeasy Japanese omakase spot in Jersey City.
Sushi by Bou is a speakeasy Japanese omakase spot in Jersey City.
Sushi by Bou

When dining in an unfamiliar context — stepping into a dining culture that’s not your own — it’s natural to feel unsure. But the gift of braving that insecurity is amazing food and a deeper understanding of that culture.

For context: I am white. I only speak English. I was raised on burgers and fries and grilled chicken and lasagna and your typical middle-class, white-person food.

I’m also an overthinker. If I had a nickle for every time I worried about doing something wrong in a restaurant, I would have enough money to go to the priciest omakase in New York. (Which, I believe, is at Masa for $950.)  

Food and dining reporter Rebecca King’s omakase experience
The unknown becomes known pretty quickly.

When I went to my first Korean barbecue I gawked at the meat scissors and hot grill fired up before me. I panicked at my first rotating sushi bar. Do I pick up any plate?  At my first hot pot restaurant, I stared at the buffet of vegetables, fish cakes and uncooked noodles, perplexed. Do I eat the broth or just cook my meat in it? The first time I ordered pho, I glanced nervously around, trying to figure out what to do with the pile of mint and bean sprouts brought to my table. I could go on… 

What is polite? What is respectful? How do I not look like an idiot? 

At each, I was confronted with the uncomfortability that comes with having to ask for help or for a translation or what to do with my dang bean sprouts.  

But it’s a privilege to feel uncomfortable. Asking for a translation in an unfamiliar place is no less than what every immigrant must do when they come to this country, bringing with them rich culinary traditions we have the pleasure of partaking in without ever leaving the country. Fear of the unknown will stop you from eating some of the best food this wide world has to offer.

Like carefully prepared sushi at an omakase.    

Once I sat at the Sushi by Bou counter, my fears were quelled by the chef, who was friendly and outgoing. He walked us through what he would be making and how the courses would be presented. He told us that soy sauce and wasabi would not be provided because he would brush or dot on the perfect amount. A good tip — it would be a shame to overpower the flavor of the fish. Everything went smoothly.

The next omakase I went to, I was more comfortable. This time, I was at Sushi Kai in Fort Lee. It was more elegant, with a clean wood countertop and minimalist decor. The dinner was slightly different — a sashimi course, this time a BYO — but I knew the ropes.

Sushi Chef Sung Kim prepares a dish of salad at Sushi Kai in Fort Lee on Tuesday, March 1, 2022.
Sushi Chef Sung Kim prepares a dish of salad at Sushi Kai in Fort Lee on Tuesday, March 1, 2022.
Mitsu Yasukawa/ Northjersey.com

By my third omakase dinner (Sushi by Sea in a secret location), I was an old pro. I sipped sake with aplomb, and knew that eating sushi with your fingers was not only acceptable but encouraged.

The unknown becomes known pretty quickly, I’ve learned. People will happily answer your questions, and if they don’t, the sting of committing a dining faux pas passes. When in doubt, look around and copy what everyone else is doing. 

Get uncomfortable. Good food is always worth it.     

Rebecca King is a food writer for NorthJersey.com. For more on where to dine and drink, please subscribe today and sign up for our North Jersey Eats newsletter.

Email: [email protected] 

Twitter: @rebeccakingnj 

Instagram: @northjerseyeats

Published
7:02 am UTC May. 9, 2022

Updated
6:10 pm UTC May. 9, 2022

Source: Asbury Park

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