Sushi-Wa offers a casual yet unique dining experience with all guests tasting the omakase courses simultaneously | Photo by Rūta Smith

The Japanese word “omakase” is traditionally associated with sushi and Japanese cuisine. The more common American equivalent is something like a chef’s table or tasting menu. 

“Essentially omakase just means ‘leave it up to you, up to the chef,’” said Chris Schoedler, co-owner and chef of Sushi-Wa Izakaya.

At an omakase, the chef curates what you eat during a special multi-course meal. The decisions can be based on something pre-determined by the chef, or catered to your taste buds. 

While places like Sushi-Wa take the traditional Japanese approach to an omakase, others, like Kevin Joseph of Raw Lab, take raw fish even further with the world’s first ever omakase raw bar. 

Diners are in good hands with the chefs at either place, offering omakase dining unlike any other. 

Keeping it traditional 

Sushi-Wa is a nigiri-focused omakase in downtown Charleston curated by Schoedler and Kazuyuki Murakami. 

For $85 per person, you receive 14 courses of nigiri, a thinly sliced piece of fish served atop sushi rice. There is no need to dunk these delicate pieces of sushi in soy sauce, coat them in globs of wasabi or stack pickled ginger on top, as you would in other sushi joints. Every bite arrives at the table fully dressed as the chefs intend.

“We try to do as little as possible to the fish,” Schoedler said. “We may add one little thing that makes the fish pop. Whether it’s a piece of scallop that just has a few flakes of salt on top or a light white fish with just a couple drops of olive oil.

“We’ve got this really beautiful piece of fish that came from halfway across the world, [so] you want to be able to taste it.”

Similar to a tasting menu, the omakase experience at Sushi-Wa starts on the lighter side. Madai, a Japanese red sea bream (or as Schoedler described it, a “fat red snapper”) is often featured in the first course. It’s a light white fish garnished with soy sauce and fresh lime zest.

Schoedler said the first four pieces of nigiri are similar, offering delicate white fish, followed by more adventurous courses. This is where the chefs experiment with seasonal ingredients or try different takes on pieces they’ve done before. Then the meal progresses to fattier fish accented with bolder flavors.

“We like to finish with some kind of fatty tuna,” he said. “I’ve got some really beautiful bluefin belly or ocean trout from Scotland, which we top with a little lemon. Another big favorite right now is snow crab topped with miso butter, which is torched; that’s a crowd pleaser.”

Sushi-Wa offers a more casual experience. Instead of a private night at a table with a friend or significant other, all restaurant guests experience it together. It becomes communal. 

“Typically we have a lot of two tops coming in on date night and they start not knowing anyone, but by the end of the meal everyone is talking to each other and having a great time,” Schoedler added. 

The environment is especially social when guests dive into the 36 bottles of sake that Sushi-Wa offers. Schoedler has been studying sake for years now, so he enjoys picking out the perfect bottle for guests.

Sushi-Wa is a reservation-only restaurant, so make sure to hop on Resy to snag a seat. The restaurant offers two seatings Friday through Sunday and one seating on Wednesday and Thursday, but Schoedler explained that in the near future, they may add another seating to each day during the week. Reservations go live 28 days ahead of time, and if there’s nothing available, Schoedler highly recommends hopping on the waitlist.

Diving into marine cuisine

Usually, when you see the word omakase, you think of sushi, but at Raw Lab, chef Kevin Joseph, owner of Raw Lab and founder of New York Oyster Week, makes “marine cuisine” the star. He coined the term “marine cuisine” and described it as “a culinary ethic and style that features smaller and lesser known species in order to provide better choices for chefs and consumers.”

Marine cuisine encompasses bivalves, crustaceans, gastropods, echinoderms and small fin fish, according to Joseph, because it is more sustainable, reduces costs and can make eating fish more accessible and healthier. 

When you dine at Raw Lab, the 11 courses of marine cuisine will satisfy any and all seafood cravings. 

The experience begins with local oysters, specifically Perky Sea Cups from the Stono River, dressed with fresh horseradish and lemon, wasabi and lime and three different mignonettes (a sauce made with shallots, pepper and vinegar).

As you sample the different oysters, you will find yourself becoming fast friends with the other 12 diners around the raw bar. Like Sushi-Wa, the experience becomes communal. There are wine pairings with each course, and Joseph will sometimes pass around a porrón (a traditional Spanish glass wine pitcher with a spout) to really get the party started.

“Raw Lab isn’t as formal as a traditional omakase experience,” Joseph said. “It’s fun, less about the chef, and more about the guests’ experience with the food.”

Although Joseph prepares all of the courses, he does feel like more of an engaging host than a chef. Whether he is sprinkling Old Bay on a dish like the internet-famous “Salt Bae” or dramatically uncovering a cold-smoked oyster, Joseph surely has the showmanship required for the unique experience. 

This one-of-a-kind experience is reservation-only. There is only one 6:30 p.m. seating Wednesday through Saturday.

When asked which dish represents the essence of Raw Lab, Joseph selected a dish he calls the “pink taco.” 

Joseph uses Antarctica-farmed salmon pickled in beet juice for bright pink color. The fish is cut like sashimi and becomes the shell of the taco. The salmon shell is then filled with local Heron Farms sea beans, sesame seeds and squid ink-stained black Tobiko, also known as flying fish roe. Guests fold the “taco” and dip it in lemon-infused avocado oil and mushroom soy.

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