Barbara Adam experiences a modern version of omakase at Kasen. Photos by Romain Garrigue.
Omakase means “trust the chef” and at the sleekly minimalist sushi restaurant Kasen, that means trusting Chef Shinji Murata, who holds something of a reputation as a sushi Nazi.
Chef Murata is nowhere near as fierce as the Soup Nazi from the 1990s television show Seinfeld. But he does have very strong ideas about sushi, and he wants to update Vietnam’s understanding — and enjoyment – of a traditional Japanese cuisine.
Chef Murata has stripped back sushi to its ancient origins of rice and vinegar. He’s updated the concept with the freshest seasonal ingredients, including seafood flown in from Japan.
“Sushi restaurants in Vietnam are very old-fashioned, serving what they used to serve 20 or 30 years ago in the US,” he says softly. “I want Vietnamese people to know contemporary sushi: warm, very tasty rice, cold fish … and no need for soy sauce.”
And so we forgo the a-la-carte section of the menu and place our trust in Chef Murata, relocating to the third-floor dining area to enjoy a procession of fresh and elegant small dishes, all featuring exceptionally flavoursome warm vinegared rice.
The menu is complimented by a small selection of beers, wines and sakes, all selected to enhance the dining experience. Kasen’s omakase set changes daily, according to what’s in season.
We primed our appetites with a seafood ceviche of octopus, shrimp, cucumber, wasabi, coriander and shallots, piled atop a crispy wonton skin (VND60,000). We washed our appetizer down with a cold crisp Orion draft beer from Okinawa.
Then our Supreme Omakase Set (VND880,000) began, kicking off with a procession of nigiri sushi dishes — salmon, Hokkaido scallop, Alaskan salmon roe, halibut, shrimp and unagi (eel).
Midway through we finished our Japanese beer and were encouraged to switch to wine, to see how a New Zealand sauvignon blanc worked with the sushi dishes. (Quite well, it turns out.)
At this point, French-trained Chef Murata decided we needed to experience how sake, served in a traditional masu (wooden box cup), compliments Japanese food. He recommended a seasonal sake, the spring-brewed Shichiken Junmai Harushibori.
For the next dish was foie gras sushi, a delightful explosion of silky umami foie gras, warm vinegared rice, sesame seeds and miso sauce.
It was this dish that seemed to capture the international essence of the Chef Murata experience. Because foie gras sushi is not actually a fusion dish, but an ingenious substitute for traditional monkfish liver sushi, which has a very short shelf life.
The final dishes were red tuna sashimi and two large handrolls, the first toro (tuna belly), the second crab. And if they weren’t the last dishes, we may have had to use the “stop omakase” concept from Chef Murata’s Los Angeles restaurant. There, the chef keeps serving until the customer yells “stop!”