This post originally appeared in the December 1, 2019 edition of The Move, a place for Eater’s editors to reveal their recommendations and pro dining tips — sometimes thoughtful, sometimes weird, but always someone’s go-to move. Subscribe now.
Ambitious, deep-pocketed, serious sushi fans always order the omakase experience (the chef’s tasting menu) when they go to a sushi restaurant. Enthusiastic, open-minded sushi fans on a journalist’s salary (like me) order the chirashi bowl instead.
Chirashi, a collection of sliced sashimi set atop a bowl of carefully prepared sushi rice and garnished with a variety of extra touches, is a fixture of most sushi restaurant menus. Often costing about $18 to $30 (depending on the price range of the restaurant and what part of the country you’re in), it’s not a menu item one would describe as “cheap eats,” but it’s my go-to move, a more affordable way to experience some of the freshest fish the restaurant has to offer. And like a chef’s omakase, it also gives you a window into their particular style and talents: what garnishes they choose to use, whether they’re homemade pickles, rolled omelet, tiny vegetables and herbs, or bejeweled heaps of roe.
I love ordering the chirashi bowl to get an initial impression of a restaurant during a first visit — there’s a sense of adventure as you wait to see which fish selection will grace your plate, even though the dish itself feels comforting and familiar. But the chirashi bowl is even a better tool at restaurants where you want to become a regular. Once you build a relationship with a restaurant or particular sushi chef, sit at the sushi counter, and you’ll find that the chef might be inclined to send along something rare or special in your bowl. Chefs are usually more willing to customize chirashi bowls to your needs (I’m not a whelk fan, and the kind chef at the sushi bar down the street is happy to leave it off my chirashi).
Keep in mind your lunch or dinner doesn’t have to consist exclusively of chirashi. I usually order a few nigiri as an appetizer to get a sense of a chef’s skills in that department, especially if there are interesting-looking specials on the chalkboard (bonus points if the restaurant makes a good live scallop). If you really want some sort of festive roll to complete your experience, have one on the side. That flexibility is another hallmark of the chirashi bowl: As someone who’s generally more interested in the fish than the rice (but who doesn’t want to totally forgo well-executed sushi rice in favor of straight sashimi), I can also customize each bite as I eat it, usually leaving some rice behind.
There’s a time and place for the omakase experience: an anniversary, a visit to Japan, a splurge meal in a major city. But the beauty of the chirashi bowl is that it requires no special occasion at all.
P.S. Love all things sushi? Check out Eater’s show Omakase for everything from Michelin-starred to barbecue-inspired sushi.