Low waste, high-end sushi: How a corporate dive into omakase has changed Chicago's dining scene

The Omakase Room is found nestled deep within its 110-seater sister restaurant Sushi-San

Published June 8, 2024 12:00PM (EDT)

Close up hand of Japanese Sushi chef using torch burning tuna sushi for customer omakase course (Getty Images/skaman306)
Close up hand of Japanese Sushi chef using torch burning tuna sushi for customer omakase course (Getty Images/skaman306)

There is no shortage of dining options in Chicago. But perhaps one of the most ambitious and interesting projects to arrive on the scene is the Omakase Room at Sushi-San.

The minuscule restaurant only seats 10, operates just three days a week and has a limit of two seatings per night (in part to ensure quality control). Guests are taken through an 18-course meal that could vary from one seating to the next within the same night, due to its selection of rare seafood selections from the Fukuoka Market in Japan. 

"This might get me in trouble but this is the same omakase experience you'd get in Japan,” says Rudy Valenta, a Chicago native of Japanese descent who’s split his time between the U.S. and Japan since childhood, and now lives in Brooklyn, New York. “That's the value this experience brings."

At $250 per person (not including taxes, gratuity or beverages), it’s one of the city’s most expensive meals. However, a closer look at the mechanics of the business and the team’s attention to detail, will have you wondering if the experience shouldn’t actually cost more.

The Omakase Room is found nestled deep within its 110-seater sister restaurant Sushi-San—both owned and operated by Lettuce Entertain You—creating a symbiotic relationship that allows the tiny, high-end sushi bar to thrive. Because the reality is that a place like the Omakase Room could not exist as an independent venture without great financial strain on its operations team or at a higher cost to its consumer. It needs the massive infrastructure it’s parent company provides in order for its culinary team to realize its lofty dreams.

“If we only do Omakase Room, we have to charge at least $450 or $500 per person to survive,” says Chef Kaze Chan, a partner for both the Omakase Room and Sushi-san. “We have downstairs [Sushi-san] to support up here. We can move everything, no matter what. A customer can dine either upstairs or downstairs and still have the best of every single ingredient.”

Omakase is a Japanese expression that means you are giving your trust to the chef to choose the most high quality sushi meal for you, based on their knowledge of ingredients and what’s in season. It’s synonymous with rare ingredients, high-end sushi and an expensive price tag. Omakase dining experiences have been gaining popularity, particularly in big cities like Chicago, New York City and L.A. where there is a growing interest in high-quality, authentic Japanese cuisine

LEYE, one of the biggest restaurant groups based in Chicago. They have 120 locations and 60 brands across the U.S. It’s a brand that mostly appeals to the masses and plays it safe with pasta, pizza and burgers. Their restaurants are known hotspots for celebrities and athletes, not necessarily for taking culinary risks (their most ambitious projects, L2O, Tru and Everest, have been shuttered for years). So to see them dive into such a unique, culturally rich concept — a high-end speakeasy-style sushi restaurant located within another restaurant in 2022 — is worth noting. 

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Diners enter through Sushi-San, a noisy, chaotic environment where friends dine in groups, lovers sit in booths and co-workers pony up for happy hour at the sushi bar. When it’s time to be seated, a hostess guides you through the hip, loud crowd and just when it seems as if you’re going to be walked through the kitchen, a sharp right is taken towards an unmarked back door, which leads to a stairwell. The door clicks behind you and everything is silenced.

Head up the stairs where another unmarked door leads to a private bar that feels like it belongs to a fancy art friend, with just enough plush seats for 10. There, diners are seated and asked for their drink order. It’s easy to get lost in the low-lit beauty of the space before two staff members walk towards the back and sweep back the curtains for a dramatic reveal of a bright, white lit sushi bar doubling as the dining room.

For more than two hours Chan takes guests through a culinary experience that might include king crab handroll, otoro tartare with caviar and uber rare Hokkaido snow beef. Because Chan is relying on the best ingredients from Japan and other parts of the world, sometimes “the best” is in short supply, and adjustments are made in real-time.

Chan is one of one of the city’s most central and authoritative figures on Japanese cuisine. His resume includes head sushi and executive chef roles at Boka Restaurant Group’s Momotaro, Macku Sushi, Kaze Sushi, SushiSamba and Mirai. 

“Chef Kaze has been influential on Chicago’s sushi scene for so long,” says Darryl Smith, partner at LEYE, on how the concept came to fruition. “Our guests [at Sushi-san], especially regulars, were asking for a more comfortable, more focused environment. We felt obligated to provide that for them, and provide that for Chef Kaze and Chef Shinge.”

"Because the tiny Omakase Room exists within the larger Sushi-san, it allows Chan and the LEYE team to minimize food waste and service sushi lovers across the budget spectrum."

Chan’s 20-year relationship with his seafood vendor in Tokyo, alongside LEYE’s portfolio and their purveyors, has created a unique opportunity in which he's able to source the best ingredients for the small-batch Omakase Room, and repurpose what remains for diners at Sushi-san (likely at a steep discount), ensuring nothing goes to waste. 

Take the akami dish. It only requires one pound of bluefin tuna but the average bluefin weighs between around 550 pounds. Because the tiny Omakase Room exists within the larger Sushi-san, it allows Chan and the LEYE team to minimize food waste and service sushi lovers across the budget spectrum. 

Diners have come to expect a certain level of experience and knowledge when they sit down for sushi with Chan. However, his reverence for Japanese cuisine and tradition, alongside his expertise, show up in small, subtle ways beyond the finished dishes he places in front of guests. There’s the use of a sharkskin board to grate fresh wasabi. It’s an ancient technique that brings out the full flavor, and creates the ideal texture, for consuming the expensive root vegetable (whose cost is on par with truffles and caviar). Chan serves it within minutes of having grated it and beckons guests to consume it within minutes. The reason being that fresh, high-quality wasabi loses its flavor within 15 minutes—a far cry from the green paste blend served up in many quick service sushi restaurants. 

“Fine dining is a really challenging space,” says Amarit Dulyapaibul, managing partner at LEYE. “Having these two restaurants operate within the structure of LEYE is such an advantage for us. We’re able to rely on all of that culinary and beverage expertise, vendor relationships, scale and structure to help ensure its success so that Chefs Kaze, Shige and Michael can focus on creating the best omakase experience in Chicago, every single night.”

Nothing is an afterthought. There is intention behind every decision. The stoneware is custom-made to provide guests with their individual lazy Susan that Chan uses as his stage. Individual lights shine down on every diner's plate (a necessity in the era of social media). Even the non-alcoholic beverage pairing is a carefully curated selection of tea-based drinks. The smoky flavors of Lapsang Souchong tea are paired with strawberries and orange for a non-boozy version of an old-fashioned. A honeydew melon swims in a bath of oolong tea where the sweet, tropical taste of pandan compliments the beverage.

“We wanted tea to be a part of the Omakase Room experience, because it’s part of Japanese dining,” says Daniel Bennett, assistant general manager. “We studied it and we worked to really understand it.”

It’s hard to imagine executing on this level of creativity and quality with the rising cost of labor, supply issues and inflation. 

Bennett doubles as the restaurant’s sake sommelier. It’s because of him that 13 members of the Omakase Room and Sushi-san brand underwent sake certification. It’s rare to find someone with this level of sake training among most beverage specialists, let alone a whole team. Last summer, Bennett and his team worked to launch Sake-san, a private-label sake made in collaboration with Daimon Brewery in Osaka, Japan—a project two years in the making which is now served in all four “San” brand restaurants. 

It’s hard to imagine executing on this level of creativity and quality with the rising cost of labor, supply issues and inflation. The Omakase Room is able to pull it off in part because it exists within the corporate structure of LEYE. A corporate partner doesn’t guarantee success and they’re not necessarily known for being nimble innovators but here it works and that’s worth paying attention to. It’s an interesting move by LEYE and only the kind of investment LEYE can make due to its size.

In the realm of fine dining, where every detail matters, The Omakase Room at Sushi-San sets a new standard, where the price of admission isn’t just for a meal but for a cultural experience you’d typically have to get on a plane and fly halfway around the world for.

By Ximena N. Beltran Quan Kiu

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Chicago Omakase Sushi