Jiang Xiaowei / SHINE
A newly opened Shanghai restaurant serving up what it calls “Chinese-style omakase” is prompting a feast of comment on social media these days.
Omakase, which in Japanese means “I’ll leave it to you,” is an expression often used in sushi restaurants where patrons leave the menu to the chef’s discretion. Typically, the chef will serve a variety of dishes, starting with light fare and proceeding to heavier, richer selections.
There are several Japanese-style omakase restaurants in Shanghai. The new restaurant on Nanjing Road in Jing’an District, called Tou Zao, or “Hot Oven,” is the first in China to boast a Chinese-style adaptation.
Therein lies the crux of the flurry of online comment, with both nitpickers and fans dishing up their opinions.
The food at Tou Zao is indeed identifiable with many common Chinese dishes and ingredients.
Omakase spans a variety of cooking procedures, including raw fish, grilling and simmering. It is characterized by great variety, generally small portions, a fine dining experience and high prices.
A staff member at Tou Zao said the restaurant is presenting Chinese cuisine in an innovative way.
“Only when you experience it can you know whether it’s good or not,” he said.
So what do patrons get for a meal that costs more than 2,000 yuan (US$317) each?
Two slices of green vegetable with a piece of pork fat costs 188 yuan, and a small pot of Mapo tofu is 200 yuan. Thighs from a big roast chicken give each patron a slice.
In addition to the dining fee, there is 10 percent service charge. When booking, a 1,000-yuan deposit is required and is non-refundable if the booking is canceled less than 24 hours in advance.
Tou Zao is very small, with a seating capacity of only six people in the bar area and four in a private room at one time. Diners at the bar have a view into the kitchen, where the chef prepares the food. It’s served sizzling hot right after it’s cooked.
Criticism notwithstanding, gourmets are flocking to the restaurant, which is so popular that bookings must be made months in advance.
“I’m not sure if it’s true omakase, and, to be frank, the quantity of each dish is small,” diner Ke Lin told Shanghai Daily.
He was invited to dine there by a friend who had come into an unexpected windfall of money. The course that Ke said impressed him most was two red berries on a plate, surrounded by smoke.
But somehow during the whole meal, he said he always felt hungry.
“The whole time seemed to be spent waiting for the next dish, which could take more than an hour,” Ke recalled.
There was a sense of ritual in the serving of each dish, he said.
Take the roast chicken, for example. The waiter appeared to show it to Ke and his friend, and then took it back to the kitchen for slicing. What came back on their plates were slices of thighs.
“It tasted good, but the portion was too small,” Ke said.
He shared his dining experience on social media, stirring up a bit of a web storm. As more people who had dined there posted pictures of their meals, the restaurant soon found itself in the center of a digital hubbub.
“Can I say that my mom cooks omakase because she never asks me what I want to eat?” wrote one netizen.
“If a roast chicken is less than 3 kilos, you’re in big trouble,” said another online.
“Both Japanese and Chinese people are speechless,” wrote one Weibo micro-blogger.
“Is it a new way of consumerism to gaslight customers?” asked another netizen. “What’s wrong with these people?”
As the controversy picked up steam, the restaurant responded by saying that the chef customizes the menu every day with fresh ingredients. The chef’s team and diners can negotiate the menu through WeChat beforehand, it said.
“We don’t care about what’s on the Internet,” a restaurant worker said. “We focus only on what we can do for our guests.”
Indeed, many premium ingredients, such as bird’s nest, M12 beef, geoduck and red sea bream, are used in dish preparation. A spring bamboo soup is reportedly stewed for seven hours, without any additives or artificial flavorings.
“The soup was delicious, with different layers of tastes,” one diner wrote online. “And the roast chicken had the crispiest skin and tenderest meat I’ve ever eaten. But I have to say that the restaurant was more expensive than other premium restaurants.”
Other commentators online dismissed criticism of small food portions and high prices.
“We should learn from the Japanese and French,” the netizen said. “Fine dining is based on ingredients, culinary skill, restaurant ambience and service quality.”
The restaurant manager refused Shanghai Daily’s requests for comments.
The Jing’an District Market Supervision and Administration Bureau said it hasn’t received any complaints about the restaurant so far.
“If consumers feel that the price is unreasonable, they can just give the place a miss,” the bureau said. “The price set by the restaurant itself may include many aspects. If there are problems with ingredients used, then they can complain to us.”