A closer look at one of the city’s hottest reservations and the face behind it all
At this point, there’s hardly a soul in Philadelphia that doesn’t know about Jesse Ito’s Royal Izakaya (royalizakaya.com). After opening in 2016, the Queen Village spot quickly gained popularity thanks to an intimate interior, fun Japanese anime appearances and—of course—the utterly delectable bites (think spicy pickles, agedashi tofu, karubi, buns and a variety of sashimi, chirashi and sushi rolls). But it’s through the door curtain and into Ito’s Royal Sushi Omakase where the true magic begins. “My omakase was the first of this style where you sit at the sushi bar, it is only the omakase I want to do, and it’s specifically, heavily, sushi,” the James Beard Award finalist says. Eight seats sit in this space, where Ito imagines, rolls and smokes some of the most heavenly nigiri. Once seated, guests hungrily eye the stone slab and bowl of pickled ginger, all while watching with fascination as Ito preps right in front of them. There’s only one rule: Devour each served bite within 30 seconds of it being served. “In terms of the time and temperature, the sushi is best served one piece at a time, made individually, then served to you,” he says. “And the reason for that is because the rice should be warm and the fish should be closer to room temperature.”
A variety of Japanese whisky and sake line the shelves of Ito’s bar
And with an ever-changing menu of delights like kaki toro (fatty bluefin tuna tartare, Kumamoto oyster), hotate uni (live scallop, Hokkaido uni), madai (seabream, fish from Ehime Prefecture) and toro caviar (fatty bluefin, Osetra caviar), it’s not a hard rule to follow. “It’s good rice. Good fish. Good soy sauce,” Ito, who sharpened his skills in his parents’ New Jersey restaurant, Fuji, adds. Accompanied by carafes (or a whole bottle) of sake, the 17-course meal satisfies every stomach. And in the case that there’s room for more, add-ons like ikura (soy-marinated salmon roe, nori) and sayori (needlefish, kombuzo) are at the ready. “A lot of people didn’t believe in this concept in Philadelphia, which I thought was crazy,” he explains. And it was. Now, the omakase is booked months in advance and boasts a 300-plus waiting list on the weekdays alone—500-plus on the weekends. More recently, the Royal Sushi Omakase even joined Craig LaBan’s four-bell club, where a few venerable names like Zahav, Vetri, Vedge and Vernick Food & Drink exist. Ito concludes, “I didn’t know all this stuff was coming… I can’t help but feel proud of that.”
The 104-piece nigiri tray, which sells for $1,000.