You can savor a silvery raw slice of rare needlefish Da-Wa while the Market-Frankford El rumbles into Girard station, which sits directly overhead. You can nibble Hokkaido scallops and foie gras hand rolls at a food court kiosk in University City, where DK Sushi serves a multicourse omakase feast for $35. You can find “budget” omakase tastings in Queen Village, too, at an understated new neighborhood BYOB called Sakana. The fresh-to-Philly chef-owner there, who is steeped in the far more luxurious sushi culture of New York, where omakases routinely range into the hundreds of dollars, offers tastings for a fraction of that price.
“We are the first restaurant here to do only omakase!” said Sakana’s Xiang Yu “Sam” Lin, just one of the many little boasts he dishes up alongside his ever-changing A-list fish, implying that competitors might be distracted by broader menus and bars. Anything to help distinguish his six-month-old tasting counter from Philly’s increasingly busy sushi scene — which is finally having its own brand of omakase moment, rolling on offbeat locations and competitive prices.
The term “budget,” of course, is the most relative of discussions when it comes to serious omakase, a chef’s choice of top-notch sushi bites that are the purist’s antidote to the naive days of our crazy maki roll youth. A $58 meal is an indulgence by any standard, especially the 12-bite “45-minute” signature suite at Sakana that went by in a hamachi flash and that landed so lightly my generous guest offered to treat us to a post-meal bagel. But in the ingredient-dependent world of sushi, where the best places serve rarities imported from Japan, and tuna grades can vary from $6 a pound for frozen loins to $75 a pound for ranch-raised bluefin, a triple-digit dinner bill for the good stuff is neither uncommon nor out of line, considering food cost.
Philadelphians have been reluctant to pay the astronomical rates far north of $200 that are common in Manhattan, where the spaces are high-design, the master chefs world famous, and the real estate so dear that it drives menu prices just as much as what’s on the plate.
When it comes to Philadelphia’s current gold class of omakases, “they’re using pretty much the same fish,” said Shinobu Habauchi, the Japanese fish buyer for purveyor Samuels & Son Seafood. That includes the sublime $130 tastings at four-bell Royal Sushi & Izakaya (made by Jesse Ito, a 2019 finalist for America’s rising star chef by the James Beard Foundation). Double Knot, Zama, and trailblazer Morimoto use a similar caliber of fish.
Until recently, though, our high-end sushi scene beyond those stalwarts remained fairly dormant while almost every other aspect of Philly’s dining world was booming — a subtle gauge that perhaps the city’s culinary maturity was outpacing its economic wherewithal. But Samuels’ Japanese import sales have grown sixfold in the last five years, Habauchi said. And a noticeable rise in quality new neighborhood spots like Tuna Bar, Tomo Sushi & Ramen, and Kinme, along with this new crop of omakase specialists, suggest some sushi fun money is finally shaking loose.
Cutting corners to keep prices accessible has had some gritty Philly hiccups. At no-frills Da-Wa (1204 N. Front St.), where it can be coat-weather drafty and the mismatched stools wobble, a run-in with the city Health Department in late February shut it down for 48 hours. Some impressive recent visits, though, highlighted by a luscious buri collar sliced into soy-glazed shingles of buttery fish, convinced me that a future return is merited, perhaps once its expansion through to Girard Avenue is complete.
Sakana and DK Sushi, however, are ready for prime time. I considered their two very different approaches to the budget omakase experience — one a fair value for stellar fish; the other a dollar value by any measure — and decided each has its distinct merits.
The fish may be “aged” but the sushi smack talk is fresh at Sakana, where chef Lin can’t help himself from digging at the competition with a litany of precision boasts.
He’s the only one in town, he claims, who uses akazu red vinegar to give his warm rice its special sour profile. Sakana is the only place, he says, that exclusively does omakase, allowing all of its chefs to focus their piece-by-piece ministrations on just a few customers at a time. (Not true if you consider Royal Sushi, inside Royal Izakaya, a distinct restaurant — which I do). He also has access to “all the best recipes” from friends at the hottest sushi bars in New York, where he worked for a decade at places like Masa, Momoya, and Sushi by Bou, whose 30-minute timed $50 omakases were a model for his own seat-churning bargain concept.
Turns out Philadelphians eat slowly and like to “hang out with their friends,” he said. (Unlike busy New Yorkers, “who eat fast because they like to go shopping.”) That explains the extra 15 minutes he’s allotted for his $58 tasting. But, really, plan on the $108 unabridged tasting for dinner if you can swing the extra dollars and time (it’s 70 minutes). Because, despite the tiresome self-promotion, minimalist service, and simple space lighted by a faux candle wall, Sakana really does deliver one of the most sophisticated sushi experiences for the money in Philly right now.
I cannot verify that Lin really is, as he claims, the only one locally who carefully “ages” certain fish through curing to intensify flavors and maximize tenderness. But it pays off with a five-day-aged hamachi that melts like lemon butter beneath the delicate crunch of chives; and a deep-purple maguro bluefin firmed by a quick poach, then turned meaty in a sake-soy marinade. A brief torching of kinmedai golden-eye snapper liquefies the thin fat layer beneath its crispy skin to a smoky gloss for white flesh that snaps from its three-day kombu cure. The earthy spark of charcoal salt amplifies the sweetness of a Japanese scallop. Kumamoto oysters float in a sweet-tart yuzu foam. Silver-skinned gizzard shad, lightly pickled in vinegar and topped with sesame and shaved shiso mint, is like the most sublime chunk of pickled herring.
So many other bites landed on our ceramic plates before disappearing swiftly in complex little gulps: the gilded double-toro belly with caviar; the king salmon perked with pepper jam; the fleshy and weird mantis shrimp and minuscule whole firefly squids belted to a nub of Sakana’s pleasantly tart rice with a tiny ribbon of nori. I was fully convinced — even full! — after a kaiseki midcourse of four plates, including a foie gras duck tostada, snow crab salad and citrusy ceviche. Sakana had made its case for sushi substance over flash, and its memorable dishes spoke far more convincingly than the owner’s bluster.
616 S. Second St., 215-922-2149; phillysakana.com
It’s all about the rare fish and red vinegar rice at this Queen Village sushi counter, which specializes in omakase tastings that offer the typically luxe experience at a relatively accessible price. It’s still a splurge if you aim to fill up on fish, and both the service and space at this BYOB are minimalist. But chef-owner Xiang Yu “Sam” Lin has brought his best recipes from a decadelong tour of Manhattan sushi hot spots, along with some smack talk for his new competition. More important, he delivers solid spins on quality fish that make him one of Philly’s new sushi players to watch.
MENU HIGHLIGHTS Oyster in yuzu foam; aged hamachi; cured maguro tuna; scallop with charcoal salt; sayori needle fish; kohada gizzard shad; double chu toro; king salmon with pepper jam; kinmedai with white kelp; albacore with ponzu and radish; anago sea eel; Peking duck foie gras taco; ice cream monaka.
BYOB A high-quality sake is the obvious choice, or a Japanese craft beer like Hitchino Nest. With the noticeably tart profile of Sakana’s rice, however, the sour funk of a wild yeast Belgian “Oude Geuze,” like Lindemans’ (seriously underrated) Cuvée René was a surprisingly fantastic match.
WEEKEND NOISE With the faint soundtrack of electronic pipe tunes wafting like sonic wallpaper, it’s so quiet you’ll have to whisper to keep conversation private.
IF YOU GO Lunch Tuesday through Friday, noon to 2:15 p.m. Dinner Tuesday through Thursday, 5-9:45 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, until 10:15; Sunday, 4:30-9:45. Closed Monday.
Dinner omakase, $58 (12 courses); $108 (21 courses, including 14 ngiri); $4-$12.
All major cards.
Reservations suggested, especially weekends.
Street parking only.
DK Sushi’s omakase
At first glance, DK Sushi is just a food court sushi kiosk dressed up, and priced up, for perpetually long lines of Ivy Leaguers with Canada Goose style and generous food budgets. Compared with the food truck options outside offering a world of lunch options for $10 and under, a solid lunch at this stall in the Franklin’s Table food hall is a modest splurge, with boxes ranging from $16 into the mid $20s. And the craftsmanship has not always been up to snuff. The maki rolls, which range reasonably from $4 to $7, can be disappointingly pedestrian. A recent salmon roll was too loosely wrapped in rice that was overly soft and sticky.
That said, there is a noticeable hike in the quality of the core fish here compared with most quick-serve sushi counters — which I’d expect from the casual sibling of Double Knot. The pristine tuna makes a satisfying $9 snack diced over a rice bowl glazed in chili-soy sauce with rice pearl crunchies and sprouts. And the “Eat Your Fancy Fish” box, though the most expensive item ($26), is actually a bargain for the share-worthy quantity (26 pieces) and quality, including sweet scallop nigiri alongside a melty rich albacore-edamame roll, a yellowtail-scallion roll and others.
This stand is at its surprising best, though, when asked to tap its more ambitious restaurant DNA for a sit-down omakase — a very fair $35 that seems all the more luxurious for its hour-long pause amid the lunch rush. While a blur of backpacks, faculty meetings and falafel salads swirled around us, chef Yun Fuentes carefully crafted nearly a dozen courses, then slid them our way beneath the tall glass partition. Three thick-cut sashimi slices of luscious hamachi, marbled salmon and tuna fanned over ponzu. Rich chu-toro belly dabbed with garlicky soy. A cucumber cup piled with orange jewels of salmon roe. Soft sweet eel balanced atop a crispy tot of fried rice.
The spice-crusted slice of roasted-to-order Wagyu beef with uni was more impressive in concept than it was to eat, due to an awkward chew. But tuna tartare layered with guacamole over a chicharrone-like cracker Fuentes made from sushi rice that he kneaded into a dough, then flash fried, was a counterside drama that delivered. Even better: the seared foie gras that sizzled in a pan with miso caramel just beyond the glass emerged warm and melty atop a nori-wrapped plug of rice topped with scallions.
As omakases go, there are sushi bars using far more rarefied fish. But DK Sushi gets props for creatively transforming some familiar ingredients into a meal that was both satisfying and entertaining for the genuine bargain of $35. If this was a Restaurant Week special, it would have been one of the highlights of my week. As a twist on food court dining, it was the definition of an experience that exceeded expectations.
DK Sushi’s omakase
Franklin’s Table, 3401 Walnut St., 215-359-3600; eatyour.fish
It’s pricier than a typical food-court sushi kiosk, but also serves the step up in fish quality expected from the quick-serve sibling of three-bell Double Knot. The à la carte craftsmanship isn’t always consistent. This rating applies specifically to the hour-long omakase meals served by chef Yun Fuentes, which are a tremendous value at $35 for a multicourse tasting that is a study in creative twists with familiar fish — and also a fine way to a secure counter seat in bustling Franklin’s Table.
MENU HIGHLIGHTS Omakase: miso soup; mixed sashimi; tuna over rice; chu toro; eel over fried rice tot; tuna-guacamole rice cracker; miso foie gras hand roll. The “Eat Your Fancy Fish” or tuna boxes.
DRINKS Alcohol not served; BYOB not permitted.
WEEKEND NOISE The food court roars during the lunch rush, but close quarters at the counter make conversation possible.
IF YOU GO Menu served Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Saturday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m.
Omakase $35. Sushi, $3-$9; Chef boxes, $16-$26.
All major cards.
Wheelchair accessible at tables (not counter), where staff will serve omakase.
Street parking only.