In relation to a larger performance space, a traditional “black box theater” is smaller, something more intimate in its corresponding distance between actor and audience, and notorious for fascinating levels of experimentation and flexibility.
In relation to his larger Izakaya by Yanaga, opened a year ago on the 1800 block of Frankford Avenue, Chef Kevin Yanaga’s brand new Omakase by Yanaga is indeed, quite literally, a black box theater: an all-black restaurant/extended chef’s table-counter with a great actor on its stage.
Here, Yanaga performs his most experimental of works while maintaining up-close and personal eye-to-eye contact with his diners. While rolling raw sea scallops between his fingers as if performing a magic trick, Yanaga tells stories about the often rare and precious fish as he allows amazed diners to take photos.
“That takes a little getting used to,” said Yanaga during a private tasting before his eight-seat, all-black Omakase by Yanaga in Fishtown opened on Friday. “While concentrating on my menu, I have to also make sure that I’m looking at the right camera so that I don’t appear silly.”
Though making certain that diner’s get a good camera angle, Yanaga — an acclaimed chef who worked with restaurateurs Stephen Starr and Michael Schulson until Glu Hospitality’s Derek Gibbons and Tim Lu made Yanaga a partner — is sternly laser-focused on the fish before him. The responsibility of a 25-course tasting menu, curated exclusively by Yanaga at $195 per person, different day-to-day ensures such quiet concentration.
He’s not nicknamed “The Sushi Whisperer” for nothing.
“Most of what I do here, what I am about is the fish,” said Yanaga. “Omakase literally means ‘The chef chooses.’”
Along with using a clear glass smoker before him to treat the taste of salmon – with the theatrical effect of dry ice filling the space – the chef treated another fatty tuna slab to a blast of a hand torch while maintain conversation with his crowd.
Now, that’s theater.
“The food we are serving, we treat it as art and want our guests to really like the way it looks before they consume it,” said Yanaga, talking as he worked. “The rest of what I do, beyond the fish, is about communication. The people dining before me. Working in a regular kitchen such as the Izakaya, you don’t get the chance to see what people are eating and how they are reacting. My Omakase – this allows us to be face-to-face. There is more of a higher expectation between us. I get to see a diner’s expression, whether they’re liking something or not. We’re sharing in an experience.”
Does Chef Yanaga get nervous facing his public?
“Absolutely I get nervous at times,” said Yanaga, radiating the usual stage jitters of any great actor. “But that’s part of the experience.”
A rich theatrical and culinary experience—that is Omakase by Yanaga.
Omakase by Yanaga is open Thursday through Saturday, with 90-minute dining seatings at 6 and 8:30 p.m. Reservations are required in advance. For more information and reservations, call 267-758-6275 or visit byyanaga.com