And indeed, one look through the lengthy menu – its pages bound like a book – told us that we had come to the right place to experience many facets of Nipponese culinary arts.
When we arrived at 1:30 pm on a weekday afternoon, the lunch hour crowd had already dissipated. Yet when we got up to leave two hours later, we were surprised to see the restaurant was practically full – in the middle of the afternoon. According to our waiter, Onami is busiest in the evening, when diners have the time to enjoy a leisurely meal.
It is certainly a good idea to budget a couple of hours in the attractive restaurant. For one, the menu alone takes a bit of time to peruse. You might also want to consult with your waiter about your choices: We found ours to be extremely knowledgeable, explaining not only the ingredients and preparation in interesting detail, but even dispensing advice about how to eat certain dishes.
And while he asked if we were good sticking with chopsticks, accepting our assurances with good grace, he did not hesitate later to subtly bring a knife for one particular course that he thought might be tricky for a Westerner. It turned out to be a helpful bit of solicitude.
Given the heat, he recommended starting with one of the specialty sake cocktails, that day featuring watermelon and orange-passion fruit. The sake cut the sweetness of the fruit just the right amount, enhancing rather than overwhelming the natural flavor.
After deciding to leave our food choices to the chef, he brought us Agedashi Doufu: Flash-fried cubes of tofu in a warm shiitake mushroom and soy broth. While the taste was reminiscent of miso, the broth – halfway between a liquid and a gel, and seasoned with tiny bits of radish and scallion – was a pleasantly richer concoction than its fermented cousin.
As our sample of yakitori (denoting grilled fish or chicken on a skewer), we had a Yellowtail cheek – a special of the day. According to our ever-reliable waiter, the chef chooses daily specials based in what is fresh in the market that day. The fish was crispy and dry at first, but a squeeze of fresh lemon straightened that out nicely. The presentation was special as well: the accompanying fresh vegetables were sliced and arranged decoratively, with both the tomato and carrot in the shape of rosettes.
Our venture into the raw fish category was a sake and avocado cocktail starring salmon sashimi. Both the flavor and texture grew more intriguing with the accompanying wasabi crunch.
Onami’s most popular salad is the spicy rocket – leafy arugula with yellow and red cherry tomatoes, slivered almonds and avocado cubes. Topped with crispy strips of inari tempura, the salad was lightly bathed in a spicy teriyaki dressing, which left a tingly touch of heat on the tongue. A delightful way to get your vegetables.
Perhaps the most complex dish we ate was Shiratama tempura: a quail egg nestled in mullet sashimi wrapped in nori seaweed tempura. Resembling a drumstick on wooden skewer, the multi-layered delicacy is savored dipped in a teriyaki sauce spiked with minced chili and scallion. I confess to some difficulty in describing the taste, since it is so unlike anything I have eaten before. Adventuresome eaters are encouraged to try it; we polished off every last bite.
Our beef dish was Gyu tatami – seared strips of filet, served with a small pile of thin onion shavings and ponzu sauce for dipping. A delicious variation that transforms what could be commonplace into something extraordinary.
The menu features an entire category of Inari – filled pouches of tofu tempura. We had the Inari special shiro zakana, containing a filling of mixed white fish (sea bream, bass and mullet) sashimi, salmon roe and asparagus tempura. It is served with a dollop of spicy mayo, and the whole thing is meant to be dipped by hand into soy sauce. It is a bit messy – but worth it for the intense interplay of flavors.
A bit more conventional – but perfect in its simplicity – is the Hotate baconmaki: scallops wrapped in bacon, grilled on skewers and glazed with a thickened teriyaki coating. Moist and bursting with flavor.
Finally, we were offered a whole boatload of assorted sushi – literally, a wooden serving dish shaped like a boat, and crammed to the gills (forgive the pun) with colorful sushi. Unfortunately, we were too full to do this extravaganza real justice. Just know that there are boats of different sizes that diners can choose to fill with their choice of favorite – or temptingly new – sushi rolls.
When I joked with the waiter that it’s a good thing the Japanese are not known for desserts, he astounded us with an entire separate dessert menu, which looked like a study in fusion.
Just for bit of palate cleansing, we selected the Ryu macha and the Umeshu prune creme brûlée. The former was a tranche of dark chocolate mousse with nougat crunch, topped with dainty swirls of whipped macha cream – like a light, airy green tea-flavored whipped cream. The latter was a square of French creme brûlée perched on a compote of prunes and currants that had been marinated in plum wine.
The desserts were a fitting finale summing up the afternoon: fascinating combinations revealing exciting frontiers in culinary exploration.
Ha’arba’a Street 18, Tel Aviv
The writer was a guest of the restaurant.