The Omakase Experience, meaning I’ll leave it up to you, chef!

Omakase is a common expression in Japan, when guests leave it up to the chef to decide what’s on the menu. We left it to the chefs on Saturday night, at the Marriott Aruba Resort & Stellaris Casino, and lived to still be talking about it, the entire following week.

Intricate. Layered. Surprising.

The Marriott offered two special evenings in The Lobby. They were exclusive face-to-face culinary encounters with acclaimed visiting Japanese chef Daisuke Itagaki working alongside our very own chef Urvin Croes, of Infini and Poke-Ono Fame. Raisa Tromp, past winner of Master of the Craft, a sushi chef for The Lobby joined the team in the world’s tiniest kitchen space, to whip up wonders and lead a small group of lucky diners through a 9-course experience, with a bold and unusual sake and wine pairings by Pepia Est with Sake Sommelier Mika Otomo, consulting.

Chef Croes reports he met the tall and handsome chef Itagaki in Texas, when there for a cooking demonstration on behalf of the Aruba Tourism Authority. The two struck a friendship and vowed to cross paths again.

Chef Itagaki has an impressive resume. His specialty besides traditional and modern Japanese delicacies? American and steakhouse cooking. The chef was handpicked by prestigious Japanese hospitality companies to study in the USA and bring home to Japan the latest in European, especially French, and American food preparations.

Along the way he met his wife, Mika Otomo, our Sake Sommelier for the night, and together they now run her family’s restaurant  @shimogamoas, in Arizona. As  Executive chef and owner, the chef excels in Japanese, French, and Wagyu, the world’s most expensive beef — native Japanese cattle crossbred with European stock to deliver a marbled red meat, that’s incredibly tender. Shimogamoas Restaurant in Chandler, serves modern takes on traditional Japanese fare and sushi, in a Zen-like setting, with a lively bar.

Chef Croes, a true innovator, describes himself as a husband, father, Aruban, Asian and Caribbean. He is also a consultant for the Coco Café, at the Boardwalk Hotel. @infiniaruba & @pokeonaruba @thecococafearuba.

Chef Tromp is a 21-year veteran with the Marriott in Aruba. She is a chef de partie at The Lobby’s sushi bar.

The experience took off with some bottomless French bubbly, followed by French Gillardeau Oysters, in lime gelee with a dollop of Japanese horseradish cream, topped with caviar. Imported from Western France these oysters hail from a small private family business owned by the Gillardeau, since 1898.  These are some of the best cared for oysters in the world and they tasted like pure ocean when slurped. A helpful server whispered on my ear to use the small spoon, he didn’t want me to embarrass myself by using, god forbid, a fork.

The oysters were paired with Zipang sparkling sake, from Kyoto, Japan, a fun, new, slightly carbonated sake with tiny bubbles.

The Tuna Tostadas that followed could be picked up and demolished in a few bites. They carried a deep-pink blanket of BBQ salt cured blue tuna, among the world’s most expensive fish, garnished with cherry tomatoes, sliced olives, jalapenos, a bit of anchovy, and a crown of parsley, streaked with delicious aioli.

The tostadas were paired with La Sirena Moscato Azul by Heidi Barrett, California, USA, a pale, dry-style white wine.

The Hamachi Aguachile, or Japanese Amberjack ceviche, delivered perfect triangles of the firm pale-pink fish, in a pool of scallions and anchovy oil, dotted with a  seasoned & stewed seaweed paste, BBQ celery, coconut and kimchi gel, shitake and dry mushroom chips. It was plated to look like an impressionist painting.

The Amberjack was paired with Louis Jadot Macon-Villages Chardonnay, Burgundy, France, elegant, clean and fresh to go along and not compete with all the different flavors of the highly appreciated fish.

We used to travel to Nobu on South Beach, to reverently order his Miso Marinated Black Code. On the Marriott’s Omakase menu the Saikyo Miso Marinated Black Cod appeared broiled with slightly charred edges, sitting by a pool of yuzu miso beurre blanc, to be paired with a heap of salty-sweet-sour pickled red onions.

This Saikyo Miso Marinated Black Cod, is a famous dish, and it went well with Murai Family Taneri Junmai, Japan, a premium rice wine.

What is so special about Japanese sake? The water, the crystal pure water, soft and crisp. The sake, as expected has a high alcohol content, 15%, and it is made with yeast that ferments the simple ingredients. Each village, each producer, uniquely different.

The Scallops Nigiri, served on a wooden platter, was a light and refined dish of a few bites. The Scallops were heaped with grated black truffle togarashi butter, and sprinkled by yuzu, a traditional Japanese citrus fruit used to season many foods. The togarashi is a 7-spice blend that dates back hundreds of years within Japanese culinary history.

The symphony of truffle and scallops was paired with A to Z Wineworks Pinot Noir, Oregon, USA, a medium-body, smooth and complex choice.

The Sake Nitsuke featured delicious salmon, simmered in a flavorful netsuke sauce, with ginger and garlic dressing, accompanied by a ball of Japanese Sushi Rice, garnished by what looked like a cluster of rice krispies flavored in furikake herbal rice seasoning, marinated daikon radishes, cilantro powder and a nori chip.

The salmon was paired with Casa Rojo Haru Rose de Saignee, Jumilla, Spain, a rich and fruity Rose with a gorgeous color.

We went through Oysters, Tuna,  Amberjack, Black Cod, Scallops and Salmon, so far, all in one seating, but Japan is also famous for beef, some of the most expensive steak in the world, comes from Japan.

My Wagyu Sukiyaki, thinly sliced beef, was cooked in a flavorful broth and served with egg foam, grated black truffle, and grilled tomato.

It was paired with Chiarlo Barbera d’Asti L’orma, Piedmonte, Italy, an accredited DOC, red Italian wine, from one of the best wine regions in the world.

One more to go: Angus Beef Tataki, tender, seared steak marinated in Plum wine. It was served with pickled daikon radishes, chives, crispy garlic, and shiso leaves, a wild basil.

Murai Family, Diaginjo, Kyoto, Japan, considered one of the world’s best sake, a gift for all senses, sealed that deal.

Dessert had better be good, I thought!

The Banana & Kurogoma, artfully arranged roasted banana, and black sesame ice cream, was surrounded by vanilla and miso semi-freddo, arequipe or Dolce di Leche, also one that is miso flavored. Add to that banana tempura, and silky banana granite, made with ice imported from Japan, frozen crystal, pure water, soft and bright.

You heard me right. They imported the ice for the dessert from Japan. And I checked it out. It was crystal clear, sparkling like a diamond.

That last hoorah was paired with Moonstone Coconut Lemongrass Nigori Sake, Oregon, USA, a fun premium sake with coconut and lemongrass flavors.

The Lobby also offered THE ARAKARUTO EXPERIENCE, at the same time, the delicacies of the Japanese kitchen with our distinctively innovative menu, a la carte. Guests could take a flavorful culinary journey with the special curated menu by chef Itagaki in partnership with chefs Croes and Tromp. The event was attended by many.

Congratulation to Ricardo Zambrano, The Lobby Manager, for keeping so many balls up in the air, for an intricate, layered, complex and surprising evening. DJ Smiley added his inimitable charm to the mix.

Chef Croes is working on a Michelin star rating introduction in Aruba. We have enough excellent establishments here, that could qualify, he states.

The Marriott invited two culinary students to work with the chefs during the evening, a great learning opportunity for them.

It also invited a culinary coach and three hospitality students to attend, so that the enthusiasm, passion and dedication of the chefs, would rub off on them, and contribute to their desire to join our future workforce.

It’s all part of elevating and upgrading our culinary vocabulary, expectation and expertise, says complex general manager Raoul Lemmerling, and he is right, an evening like that sets the culinary bar, higher.

(The Manchebo Beach Resort has had an excellent sushi restaurant by the name of Omakase, for a few years.)

Additional photo credit: @EnriqueBalestrini

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November 21, 2023
Rona Coster