If your knowledge of sushi starts and ends with a Philadelphia Roll drowned in soy sauce and wasabi, Chef Sunny Cheng wants to help you up your sushi game and welcome you to the world of omakase.
Omakase is a Japanese phrase that means, “I leave it up to you.” Cheng and his wife, Kathy, are betting New Haveners will do just that when they stop by their new sushi bar Otaru. If customers are willing, Chef Cheng will take them on a sushi adventure.
The new restaurant is tucked into a small storefront under the garage at the corner of Temple and George streets. After many years in New York City, the couple chose to launch Otaru there, focusing on small plates and sushi.
“New York City has become very competitive, and the rent is very high,” Kathy said. Prior to 9/11, the couple owned a full-scale Japanese restaurant at 33rd and Lexington Avenue serving a mix of sushi and a four-page menu of more traditional Japanese food like teriyaki and katsu. Heightened security after 9/11 made running a restaurant in Manhattan less attractive, so they sold their five-year-old business.
Chef Cheng, who hails from China and has been in the United States for 35 years, then did some stints in the kitchens of famed restaurants like Nobu Fifty Seven, Morimoto’s and Oya. He actually started his cooking career in traditional Chinese restaurants. Then a colleague asked if he wanted to learn about sushi. From there he developed a passion for it.
“I go for that,” he said of learning something new, “and now I’m here.”
The Chengs have been married for 24 years and have two grown children. They consider the new restaurant their baby.
After they sold their first restaurant, Kathy went to work in the banking industry for 10 years. Cheng continued to hone his skills as a sushi chef working in various kitchens. When they thought about starting another restaurant they knew they wanted to get out of New York and break from the norm.
“We waited for the right moment,” Kathy said. “Sometimes you have to wait for the right moment.”
At this moment, Japanese food is evolving.
Cheng said most people stick to rolls, which are ubiquitous at most Japanese restaurants here in the U.S. Kathy said Americans, who like their comfort zones, sometimes need a nudge.
Cheng said customers also likely stick to rolls because they don’t think they really like eating raw fish, or they don’t think they like the taste. He’s not against rolls; in fact, there are a few on Otaru’s menu. But he said there’s much more to sushi than that.
Otaru specializes in using the freshest, seasonal fish that Cheng goes to New York to get. Otaru is currently serving up small morsels of different types of snapper, baby barracuda, tuna, scallop, and sea urchin.
When you step into Otaru, al the action is at the sushi bar, which seats 10.
Chef Cheng said his first question for customers who opt for omakase is whether they have any allergies. Once he knows what’s off limits, he opens a magic box of fish and other ingredients that he keeps at the ready. He begins to create little morsels of sushi rice and fish that end up looking like works of art.
Sometimes he serves up a piece of raw fish lightly dressed in a bit of seasoning like truffle salt. Other times he breaks out a culinary cooking torch to create a light char on the fish. He seeks to bring out and complement the natural flavor of the fish and its unique texture.
Cheng said often times the fish for sushi is served too cold; it ends up feeling like a blob of uncooked fish in your mouth. He said he seeks to show how fish texture can vary and provide a firm or creamy mouthfeel.
“And we’re not going to hand you a bottle of the Kikkoman soy sauce that you’ll usually find on every table at most Japanese restaurants,” Kathy said.
The restaurant makes its own soy sauce. When you leave it to Chef Cheng, he will dress sushi in soy sauce, or yuzu or a small dot of wasabi paste, ground directly from the root, not pre-made with a powder mix.
The couple found the Temple Street location with help from Kathy’s brother. The small size evokes omakase-focused restaurants where people are sitting elbow-to-elbow, eating sushi, interacting with the chef as he prepares each piece, and interacting with each other.
Note: the omakase experience can take about an hour and a half, particularly if all the seats at the bar are full.