One of Hidden Omakase's 12-courses could be fresh salmon with sauce. Depending on which night you go. (Photo by Katoe Productions)
Hidden Omakase chef Billy Kin pours tea for a diner in a socially-distanced dining area. (Photo by Katoe Productions)
Diners sit socially distanced at Hidden Omakase's U-shaped counter top with Plexiglas dividers. (Photo by Katoe Productions)
Tucked away in what first appears to be a comic book store in The Galleria area, you’ll find Houston’s first omakase-driven sushi restaurant. In a city with such a varied food scene, omakase-style dining still does not have much of a presence in Houston. Hidden Omakase is seeking to rectify that with by concentrating on the chef selected tasting menus that define the dining tradition.
It is located in an office building at 5353 West Alabama, but you have to know it’s there. The windows are covered with vintage comic books and there is not a sign indicating it’s a restaurant.
Hidden Omakase is Chef Billy Kin’s newest project. It is a natural fit for the chef who sometimes did an omakase-style menu for the regulars at his previous restaurant — the innovative Japanese spot, Blackbird Izakay.
Omakase dining means no sets menus. Instead, the 12 (or sometimes more) course meals are all freshly prepared and selected by Kin and are a surprise to the diners sitting on the other side of the counter.
“Omakase-style has very intimate seating, 12 people maybe 14, and the entire front kitchen basically puts on a show,” Kin tells PaperCity. “Your guest is sitting right in front of you. . . The omakase concept where the setting is small, people that come in really are looking for an experience different then if you were to go to just any other Japanese restaurant or whatever. Because it’s more intimate. It’s more focused.”
The elevated and intimate style of dining has been around for decades and first became popular in the 1990s. This intimate dining experience is actually conducive for social distancing — with a limited number of diners. The first omakase-only restaurant in Houston just might provide insight on what the food world could look like in the future now that massive restaurants with hundreds of people inside do not make as much sense anymore.
“I think especially now with COVID and everything people are looking more for a setting like this where they know that when they come in it’s not gonna be 1,500 people,” Kin says. “Everything is more controllable. Everything is prepared in front of them.
“And basically, they know that we’re taking care of them, making sure everything is safe. So a lot of people are looking for that experience at the current time.”
For Kin, who was tapped by restauranter Tuan Tran to helm Hidden Omakase, this style of dining is a natural fit. He did it as much as he could at Blackbird Izakaya and grew up going to counter service restaurants in Japan.
“I’m Chinese, but my dad was born in Japan,” Kin says. “My grandfather had a restaurant in Japan for fortysomething years so when I was a little kid I used to visit my grandparents in Japan and he would always take us to these counter service (spots), but more of a pub style.”
Unlike many other forms of dining where the goal is to serve as many people as allowed by the fire codes, omakase dining fits neatly within a socially distanced world. The intimacy and ability to interact safely through Plexiglass with the chef who’s skillfully crafting your 12-course meal is something that should not go under-appreciated in a year where human-to-human interaction has been largely limited and sparse.
“What’s fun for me is for people to come in and I get to have a conversation with them,” Kin says. “At the same time, I get to source the finest ingredients, not (only) the finest but something unique that maybe they haven’t tried before . . .
“If I have a chance to make them happy that’s what really motivates me.”
In order to facilitate Hidden Omakase’s unique dining experience, there are only two seatings per night and reservations are required for them. The first seating is at 6:30 pm and the second at 8:30 pm, both of which only allow for a maximum of 12 diners in the entire restaurant. The 12-course (sometimes plus) diners will run about $150 per person. Hidden Omakase will be a place for a special night out.
“When they come in we know exactly who they are,” Kin says. “We get to refer to them by name and they get to sit right in front of us. And we get to cook for them in a very small intimate, luxurious controllable setting.”
Hidden Omakase has already hosted friends-and-family dinners and hopes to open to the public relatively soon.