The Omakase Boom: Why These Japanese Tasting Menus Are Taking Miami by Storm
A Japanese tradition makes waves in the Magic City.
When The Den opened in late 2018 on Miami Beach, it was only the second omakase-style sushi to make inroads in the neighborhood. “The Den became a destination,” says Mahmood Abousalem, East Coast regional managing director of Plan Do See America, Inc., the hospitality brand behind the hidden sushi bar. “Restaurateurs came in, saw it and thought, ‘More omakase counters are needed in Miami.’”
This marked the moment when the city—more often associated with celebrity chefs and big-name brands tied to luxe hotels—started to see a shift toward refined sushi served in a different, more traditional, and much more deliberately presented manner. And it only made sense: Tasting menus in general were on the rise throughout Miami, so omakase seemed like a natural evolution.
Omakase can be translated as “I’ll leave it up to you” or “I trust you, chef,” so-called since the chef tailors the experience to the guest, watching diners’ reactions and expressions as they place each small dish on the counter in front of them. The multicourse experience unfolds as beautifully as a symphony, each bite-size dish polished and plated to perfection, delivered dramatically by the chef orchestrating the show from behind the sushi counter. The pandemic put a pause on this style of dining, since the meal is an intimate face-to-face encounter and requires a level of human interaction that has since been replaced with QR codes and curbside pickup. But over the past year, as restaurants have slowly rolled out their reopening strategies, the demand is so high for omakase that it seems like new spots are setting up shop on a near-monthly basis.
Case in point: Austin transplant and James Beard Award-winning Uchi, which debuted in January, was one of the area’s most-hyped restaurant openings of the year. For founder and executive chef Tyson Cole, Miami seemed like an ideal landing place for the brand, and the best of the major metropolises (NYC, L.A., etc.) to ease into in terms of expansion. He spent a year or two looking around the city before closing on a location in Wynwood because it’s near downtown, but not directly in it. “Wynwood’s vibe is so creative and an amazing fit for what we do,” he says, adding that the timing also made sense for the restaurant’s unveiling. “Right now, things are coming back quickly from the pandemic, and people are into trying new things.”
In late 2020, Wynwood also welcomed Hiyakawa, which has (rightfully so) become an architectural favorite on Instagram. Restaurateur and art dealer Alvaro Perez Miranda spent 15 years in Japan and combined his Venezuelan roots with his travels in Asia to create a new type of Latin fusion kissed with Japanese fare and accented by Venezuelan aesthetics. “I wanted the ceiling to be an art piece and make something theatrical, because you can see it from the outside,” says Miranda, referring to the 700-piece, wooden, wave-like installation floating above the dining room.
Miranda also wanted to pay tribute to the exquisite precision found throughout Japan’s culinary culture. Ingredients like $80 mangos and seasonal seafood are flown in daily, and, instead of dunking sushi in soy sauce, chefs use small brushes to expertly paint the sashimi and nigiri. “In Japanese, it’s omotenashi, the attention to detail you put into what you do, that makes the difference,” he says. “I wanted to open up a restaurant where you’re eating omakase as if you were in Ginza, but we’re saving you the airplane ticket and hotel.”
Speakeasy Hiden helped introduce this concept to Wynwood when it opened three years ago. “We’ve been going to Japan for a long time, and thought this kind of omakase would be a beautiful addition to Miami,” says Julian Hakim, president of Showa Hospitality, the group behind Hiden. “It was kind of risky, because it was definitely the priciest in Wynwood at the time.”
The hefty price tag can be traced back to the sourcing of ingredients and the caliber of chefs, not the atmosphere or style of décor that so often gives Miami its bigger-is-better reputation (in other words, you won’t find bottle service and gilded sculptures here). “You don’t go to restaurants that are flashy in Japan,” Hakim says. “They want to keep the design as functional and simple as possible so you can focus on the dishes.”
Stashed away behind a back door inside Taco Stand, Showa’s laid-back taco spot, the sushi counter features just eight seats, making it feel even more like a private dining experience. Rice is made fresh for each seating and served at different temperatures depending on the dish, while hot plates are prepared in the compact kitchen behind the counter. “Having that few customers, we can really focus on attention to detail,” Hakim says. “We just want to source great stuff and have people leave happy. It’s not an easy experience to replicate—every plate, every dish has been hand-selected.”
Whether you have the funds to ball out on a lavish meal or are still easing your way into this curious Japanese concept, these are the omakase OGs, spinoffs, and speakeasies driving the movement and doing their part to turn Miami into a beachfront Tokyo.
Nodding to Tokyo’s stylish Ginza neighborhood, Hiyakawa is the latest from the Venezuela-born restaurateur behind popular Japanese eatery Wabi Sabi. Seasonal produce and seafood are flown in fresh daily from Japan, and the reservations are available for just 12 people per day. Polished concrete floors and a floor-to-ceiling wood art installation frame the 14-seat counter, behind which Morimoto alum Masayuki Komatsu serves grilled, steamed, and fried fare on plates crafted by a New York-based Japanese ceramist. Seasonal specials like Japanese horse mackerel and wild yellowtail are what make this spot really shine, and the sake sommelier can guide you to the perfect pairing.
How to book: Reserve via Tock.
From the group behind Mexico City’s buzzy Japanese restaurant scene, Hiden holds court in one of the least expected places: behind The Taco Stand. And in true speakeasy style, the only way into the 8-seat omakase is with a password emailed earlier that day. Passing through the chaos of the taqueria into the serene, 450-square-foot eatery can be a bit jarring, but as soon as the tasting commences and the chefs begin delicately prepping and plating each of the eight-to-10 courses, you’ll immediately feel transported to Tokyo (which, of course, is where the fish is flown in from fresh daily).
How to book: Reserve via Tock.
Right before the pandemic hit, the duo behind 1-800-Lucky’s Poke OG brought the fast-casual poke bowl concept to a standalone spot Downtown—one part of the city practically devoid of Asian fare. Now, they’ve expanded to the space next door to create an affordable omakase experience in partnership with sushi chef Ryo Kato, formerly of Myumi (which also had a sushi counter at Asian food hall 1-800-Lucky). The only traditional aspect of the space is the sushi counter, which seats just eight, while the old-school hip-hop-dominated soundtrack and curio cabinet teeming with Japanese Monopoly and action figures are more in line with the colorful bars you’d find in Wynwood. But that’s part of what makes this spot seem more approachable for omakase first-timers—or those who’d like to indulge without dropping half a month’s rent in the process. Go for the straight-forward 10-course menu or splurge on an 18-course omakase sprinkled with sought-after items like uni, chu toro, and A5 Wagyu.
How to book: Reserve via Tock.
After nearly 18 years in operation, devotees still make the pilgrimage out to Austin to dine inside the converted bungalow housing the original Uchi. And inside this Miami outpost, those in the know might pick up on some of the original’s elements, including the raved-about happy hour (a great way to sample the Uchi experience without diving headfirst into a pricy tasting menu). And while the outdoor, plant-filled patio is a Miami take on chef Tyson Cole’s laid-back omakase concept, the deservedly hyped restaurant, with its centerpiece 14-seat walnut sushi counter, definitely gives off a dressed-up vibe. Each dish has an unexpected spin, whether it be a yuca crisp or bigeye tuna with goat cheese, which is why the 10-course chef’s tasting is the best way to navigate the bill while sampling both seasonal and signature dishes.
How to book: Reserve via OpenTable.