Diners being served at Fins and Scales

Cole Wilson

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Kosher Omakase Restaurants Take Off

Forget those California rolls. These new eateries offer a high-end spin on sushi, with a dash of showmanship on the side.

Anna Rahmanan
January 08, 2024
Diners being served at Fins and Scales

Cole Wilson

A number of dining trends were born out of the ashes of COVID-19, a global pandemic that entirely upended the way we live and eat. Temporary outdoor dining sheds have become staples across cities like New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, as have contactless ordering systems. Perhaps most intriguing, though, has been the move during the later phases of the pandemic to hire private, in-house chefs to create memorable meals for a group of people at home.

In the kosher world, the latter trend has been particularly focused on Japanese cuisine. Between 2020 and 2021, in fact, three distinct businesses—Masuda, Akimori, and Fins and Scales—started offering at-home kosher omakase to folks all around New York.

Fast-forward a couple of years and that trend in at-home dining has led to the establishment of brick-and-mortar locations all around New York City and beyond. Today, there are close to 10 kosher omakase destinations within New York state and New Jersey alone.

A Japanese phrase that roughly translates to “I’ll leave it up to you,” omakase is a meal that consists of about 15 courses selected by the chef, most of them cuts of fish served over rice or on their own right at the counter by the chef himself. Although usually falling under the broader “sushi” portion of the menu at kosher eateries, omakase is, to the general public, considered a cuisine of its own: more high-end and luxurious than the average sushi meal, and never really featuring traditional rolls.

Although it’s been around for decades, with hundreds of restaurants serving high-quality omakase in New York state, only in the past two years have kosher diners finally been treated to the gastronomic form, an almost direct result of the pandemic, during which kosher folks not only developed a palate for omakase but started actually asking for it.

“At-home omakase experiences took off during the pandemic as people were home trying to have a fun dining experience while restaurants were closed,” explained Eliyahu Ebrani, who runs the kosher restaurant review Instagram account Kosherist. “What we’re seeing now in the new wave of kosher, and omakase is part of that, is people wanting to be entertained by something more exciting than sitting down and ordering something from the menu straight-up.”

That devotion to novelty is something that has clearly resonated among restaurateurs, guiding their decisions.

“Everyone is tired of the typical fusion restaurant and supermarket-style sushi—they want more of an experience,” said Teddy Khafif, the founder of Akimori. “It’s no longer about coming in, ordering, eating, and going. The entire kosher restaurant industry is now out with the old and in with the new. People want to video-record something and share it on Instagram. With omakase, it’s so exclusive that only a few people can sit by the counter.”

Daniel Zelkowitz, a partner at Fins and Scales, agrees with Khafif.

“There’s a component to food being performance art,” he noted. “In many ways, omakase is dinner but it’s also a show, watching someone that’s a master create something unique just inches away from you.”

Zelkowitz launched at-home omakase service on his own during COVID-19 as a nameless business that eventually led to the creation of the physical restaurant in New York. He opened Fins and Scales as a completely charitable kosher destination (seatings are only available on Thursday nights and all proceeds benefit the local Chabad) but he also works within the large nonkosher group Sushi by Bou.

“Over the course of the pandemic, I did over 200 servings of kosher omakase at home,” he said. “That’s when we saw that there was a giant demand from the kosher community for something more than sushi. The idea that your dinner is more than the food you eat was something that had a major appeal.”

It’s worth noting that there are two factors that usually define how good a nonkosher omakase is: the freshness and quality of the ingredients used, and the craftsmanship of the chef.

Regarding the former: Traditional omakase features a healthy dose of shellfish and nonkosher meats, another reason why restaurants helmed by Jews might have stayed away from the cuisine.

It seems, though, that gastronomic gurus have now found a compromise.

“We don’t serve shellfish, of course,” said Khafif, who has in the past worked alongside high-end sushi chefs at nonkosher establishments. “But we don’t substitute that with fake crab, as kosher fish is good enough.”

The restaurateur explains that, at Akimori, the fish is mainly sourced from Japan, New Zealand, and the Mediterranean.

Abraham Chetrit, the owner of Masuda, also flies his fish in from Japan. While discussing his restaurant, he makes it a point to delve into the importance of quality, especially when it comes to omakase.

“Omakase involves much higher-quality fish,” he said. “The cuisine entails a lot more than regular sushi rolls.”

As a reviewer, Ebrani has certainly noticed a more acute dedication to higher standards.

“It is quite revolutionary to think that you can make a 15-course meal out of fish,” he said matter-of-factly.

Needless to say, that devotion to high quality comes at a cost.

At Akimori, the average omakase will cost you between $90 and $130. At Fins and Scales, the price is closer to $180. Interestingly enough, perhaps because of the avoidance of expensive shellfish and meats, the cost of a similar meal at a tref destination is well over $200.

Whatever the price, it seems like kosher diners’ discovery of omakase during the pandemic and their current desire to experience something more than a straight-up restaurant have created a culinary revolution of sorts. But why does it matter?

For one, customer behaviors dictate restaurant offerings. Given the interest in more sophisticated cuisines, eateries are now being held accountable for some of the things that might have gone unnoticed until now—including the quality of kosher ingredients and the expertise of the hired staff.

The omakase trend might also be foreshadowing the advent of yet another wave of change. As kosher diners familiarize themselves with the tref restaurant world through social media and more, they might want to try and adapt certain practices in their own establishments as well.

“The kosher consumer is much more involved in the nonkosher world these days because of social media,” said Zelkowitz. “They are aware of trends but don’t know how to implement them yet.”

“So many times I’ve been out with friends who are all kosher and we’d be walking down the street and see the most gorgeous restaurants offering the coolest experiences and we’d think, why can’t that be kosher?” said Khafif. “I think now that pretty much anything that the nonkosher world does, the kosher world is going to follow. We’ll always be a couple of years behind but we’re watching what they are doing as they’re setting the tone for the industry.”

Whether the changes will affect the rest of the country is yet to be seen. Needless to say, markets like New York and Los Angeles, cities filled with kosher eaters, might be anomalies but, if Akimori’s and Fins and Scales’ plans to open more locations within New York and beyond are any indication, omakase might get even bigger soon.

“My intuition tells me there will probably be a handful of other players entering the space soon,” said Ebrani. “I think omakase will become very popular, almost ubiquitous, and there will be a lot of competition until it all dwindles down to a few key players, innovators, and bread-and-butter destinations.”

Anna Rahmanan is a New York-based writer and editor.