These $50 ‘Strawberries’ Are Popping Up on Michelin-Starred Menus

When purchasing a crate of strawberries at a neighborhood market, the modus operandi usually goes something like: “the redder the berry, the better the taste.” But Hiroki Koga and Brendan Somerville, founders of New Jersey-based Oishii Farm, seek to upend that notion with a new creation: the Japanese strawberry, also referred to as the Omakase berry.

Grown in an indoor vertical farm by the Hudson
River, the berry is produced using seeds that the founders imported directly
from Japan. “They are completely natural,” explains John Reed, the company’s
marketing manager. “They are not in any way genetically modified, they are
completely pesticide-free. They are perfectly clean, never even touched by a
bare human hand. They don’t have to be washed [prior to ingestion] and there
are no concerns about anything unnatural going into your body when you eat
them.”

A chef prepares a dish with Omakase berries.
Oishii

Clearly appealing to a public craving all
things natural, Koga and Somerville, who met through an entrepreneurship
network while pursuing MBA programs in California, are no strangers to the food
world. Somerville worked on a few startups in the food space while Koga did a
wide range of management and consulting in the industry before opening up
Oishii (which translates to “delicious” in Japanese) in 2016. Hailing from
Japan, Koga immediately noticed the sub-par quality of American produce as
compared to what can be eaten in his country of origin and decided to do
something about it.

“The flavor of an amazing strawberry is so
different from what you typically eat in the United States,” Reed says. To
create the ideal berry, Oishii Farm controls for two main elements: texture and
color. Although cagey about the specifics of production, Reed concedes that the
fruits are to be of appropriate firmness and boast a more subtle color than the
usual deep red of American strawberries.

A bowl of Omakase berries.
Oishii

“We monitor our farm very carefully,” Reed
explains. “There’s only one specific day for each plant when the berries are
going to be at optimal flavor and so we have our farming experts identify
berries that are at peak ripeness daily, that’s why you’ll see identical color
and firmness in the texture of the [fruits].”

The omakase strawberry is, indeed, delicious:
juicy, firm, and sweet—it truly does taste like what you’d suppose a great
berry should taste like, also emanating an unusually strong aroma. Although at
first glance it appears to look identical to its American counterpart, a closer
inspection reveals a key difference: whereas a typical berry features
pronounced green seeds on the outside, the omakase strawberry boasts sucked-in
seeds that create a dimpled sort of look on the surface.

Not your average Strawberry Shortcake.
Oishii

In production since 2018, the omakase strawberry
is still only available within New Jersey and New York, both as an ingredient incorporated
at higher-end restaurants and, inventory permitting, to private individuals who
can place an order online. In the latter case, buyers end up purchasing an
entire experience: $50 will get you a crate of eight strawberries (about 35
grams each), delivered by an Oishii team member at a pre-established meeting
spot. Said team member will explain the concept behind the product while
revealing how best to enjoy it. (The fresher, the better.)

So far, mostly New York City restaurants have reveled
in the offering. The first eatery to serve the strawberries was Chef’s Table at
Brooklyn Fare back in 2018. Since then, a slew of other chefs have jumped on
the bandwagon: including the Michelin-starred restaurant Atomix and Instagram-famous
pastry shop Dominique Ansel Bakery.

Pastry chef—and inventor of the ‘Cronut’—Dominique Ansel, holding up an Omakase berry.
Oishii

A mere glimpse at the farm’s Instagram account
hints at the versatility of the berry, at least as it is currently used by the
various cooks: Ansel created a strawberry sando (Japanese for sandwich) by
filleting the berry and combining it with a light chiffon cake and a light
cream; chef George Mendes at Aldea used it in his arroz doce (classic Portuguese
rice pudding) and topped it with cinnamon and ice cream; sushi chef Kazushige
Suzuki at Onodera, on the other hand, serves the fruit as-is.

As Reed explains it, the company’s goals of expansion are dual in nature: the team wants to broaden the reach of the strawberry to include areas well beyond New York while also diversifying the product line. If the Environmental Working Group’s annual “Dirty Dozen” list—which highlights the fruits and vegetables found to have the highest amount of pesticide residue—is of any indication, the potential for variation is pretty vast. Although strawberries appear on the list annually, there are at least 11 other commonly “contaminated” products that the farm could potentially grow, such as apples, peaches, cherries, tomatoes, spinach, and potatoes.

Michelin-starred restaurants in the U.S. are now serving desserts with Omakase berries, but “regular” consumers can buy eight of them in a sushi-style box for $50—a price tag that includes delivery to a specific location in downtown New York.
Oishii

“I definitely see a bright future for indoor vertical farming,” Reed says. Acknowledging that certain crops—wheat and corn, for example—will likely continue to be cultivated outdoors, Reed posits that growing certain fruits and vegetables in lab-like environments may have its advantages: “Certain elements benefit much more from indoor agriculture, from being grown fresh and consumed almost immediately, strawberries are definitely one of them.”

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