Best Houston Japanese Restaurants for Omakase
The literal translation of the Japanese word omakase is “to entrust”. More loosely defined, the word means “I will leave it up to you”. In American Japanese dining, the term has taken on a life of its own. It is now colloquially used to define a series of rotating menus and seasonal experiences offered at high-end Japanese kitchens. To order the omakase menu means entrusting the chef with providing a one-of-a-kind dining experience that is creative and inspired.
Although Houston’s restaurant scene continues to gain national relevance, Japanese cuisine curiously remains an under-represented element of the city’s culinary landscape. Despite a saturation of outstanding sushi bars, ramen shops and hibachi kitchens, those businesses are too often overshadowed by steakhouses, Tex-Mex, barbecue and Vietnamese noodle houses.
Naturally, this list features many of the same Japanese restaurants that frequently pop up on best-of lists. However, our aim is to focus on omakase. It is by freeing and entrusting the chef to pick the menu that diners experience the truest form of creativity and talent. These are our picks for the best omakase dining experiences in Houston.
Kata Robata, 3600 Kirby: Chef Manabu “Hori” Horiuchi has led his acclaimed sushi restaurant, Kata Robata, for over a decade now and, more than any other Japanese chef in Houston, is the one most likely to someday win a James Beard Award. He’s been a semifinalist for Best Chef Southwest three times and is known as a veteran whose penchant for pushing boundaries sets the bar for quality and innovation.
Kata Robata opened as a Japanese restaurant serving a mix of traditional and modern dishes. Since then, it has transformed into a highly creative culinary concept merging Hori’s purist sushi technique with ingredients and inspiration from around the world. Earlier this year, he introduced Vietnamese and Indian influences.
As a result of the restaurant’s evolution, an omakase dinner at Kata Robata may include dishes as unorthodox as foie gras torchon and chocolate mole, or as classically simple as toro and freshly ground wasabi over sushi rice. Selections change not only with the season but with Horiuchi’s new inspirations and creative leanings. This is an omakase experience unlike any other in the city. The cost can be lower, or the diner can drive it much higher with special requests, but the average is about $150. Pro tip: if you happen to be at the restaurant when it’s not busy, sushi counter seating is available and you’re not starving, ask about a mini-omakase of fewer courses.
KUU Restaurant, 947 Gessner: Executive chef Addison Lee has professional roots based at the prestigious Nobu London where he trained under the tutelage of chef Nobu Matsuhisa. There, he learned and incorporated the famed chef’s rigorous standards of quality and presentation. Lee imparted much of the same drama and prestige when he opened KUU in 2014, which quickly became the culinary jewel of MetroNational’s ultra-high-end multi-use development, Gateway Memorial City.
Lee’s menus exemplify flair and elegance that is similar to Nobu (without all the high society), as does the restaurant’s sleek and chic decor. His presentations include touches of gold leaf and lavish use of uni and salmon roe are artisanal to the point of extravagant. Omakase here is more of a tasting menu, as most of the seating is at tables. and you likely won’t interact with Lee, as he’s now more of a business partner and guiding force than the day-to-day chef. Nonetheless, KUU provides a unique experience worth checking off any Houston sushi bucket list.
MF Sushi, 1401 Binz Street: Chef Chris Kinjo’s enigmatic sushi restaurant is tucked discretely into a Museum District office building and a mystery to those who’ve never dined there. The current location has been largely unpublicized since its splashy debut. (A fire shut down the original Westheimer location.) It doesn’t even appear to have an active website and its Facebook page hasn’t been updated since May 1. Regardless, its lack of digital footprint didn’t prevent it from reaching number 11 on Alison Cook’s Top 100 in 2018 or sporting very high ratings on consumer review websites.
Reservations are necessary for the exclusive, 12-plus course omakase experience that can last up to two and a half hours and cost upwards of $200 per person (after tip and beverages). Like his chic and contemporary dining room and flat, modern sushi bar, Kinjo’s omakase dinners are minimalist, artistic and pure. Courses are traditionally small with just one or two bites of meticulously sliced and expertly molded fish, fresh uni or lightly seared wagyu. It is a worthy splurge, though perhaps more suited to the sushi purist than those looking for boundary-pushing innovation.
Nobu, 5115 Westheimer: When chef Nobu Matsuhisa expanded his world-renowned sushi concept to The Galleria in mid-2018, the receptions were mixed. Some lauded the opening as a sign of Houston’s international credibility, while others rolled their eyes at the prospect of more over-priced coastal concepts taking prime Houston retail space. Whatever your thoughts, it would be foolish to leave one of the world’s premiere sushi restaurants off this list.
Years before chef Nobu teamed up with actor Robert DeNiro to create the exclusive, pricey Nobu, he traveled to Peru as a young chef to open his first restaurant. While there, he absorbed years of knowledge and experience regarding South American cuisine — knowledge he would later incorporate into his sushi. Today, Nobu’s menus are known to be extremely seasonal, fresh, inspired and reflective of the chef’s immense body of knowledge. Despite the dozens of Nobu locations around the world (many of them inside hotels), chef Nobu personally crafts the seasonal tasting menu served at each one. (Just don’t expect him to be at the restaurant to serve it to you himself.) The signature 12-course Nobu experience is $125 and the “Houston” menu, which is heavier on wagyu and gulf seafood, is $175.
Shun Japanese Kitchen, 2802 South Shepherd: When this restaurant debuted last year, it was a legacy moment for Japanese food in Houston. Chef-owner Naoki Yoshida, whose family has owned the institutional Nippon Japanese Restaurant on Montrose since 1985, grew up in the neighborhood preparing fish behind his father’s sushi counter. After years of experience in both Miami and Tokyo — and time spent running the sushi counter at Nippon — Yoshida returned to open his version of a “second-generation”, modern Japanese kitchen less than a mile from the family business.
The result was an introduction to a highly contemporary yet finely crafted vision of modern Japanese cuisine reinforced by traditional skill and respect for the timeless craft of making sushi. Yoshida is often the lone chef working behind his small sushi counter and serving omakase meals to those who manage to snag one of the few limited sushi bar seats. His menu features refined versions of staples such as soy sauce-marinated mackarel (saba) garnished with a strip of candied seaweed and a small smear of fresh wasabi, or the modern carnitas stuffed fried dumplings.
Roka Akor, 2929 Weslayan: This high-end, stylish robata steakhouse and sushi kitchen opened in June 2017. There are also Roka Akor locations in San Francisco, Chicago and Scottsdale. Prior to the Houston opening — in fact, way back in 2009 — Bon Appétit restaurant editor Andrew Knowlton named it one of the Top 10 Sushi Spots in the country. In 2012, Travel + Leisure gave it a similar honor.
Presentation, luxury and meticulous quality are the defining characteristics of the sushi program at Roka Akor. It’s part-steakhouse pedigree means that wagyu is often part of the omakase experience, as are over-the-top sashimi presentations and gastronomy-inspired nigiri. Those who seeking an overtly luxurious omakase experience may find that Roka Akor is a perfect fit.
Uchi, 904 Westheimer: Restaurant imports from Austin and Dallas are relatively common in Houston, as are the accompanying gripes from purists who only revere original concepts. That said, many sushi-loving Houstonians have nothing but good things to say about Uchi. Although the modern sushi bar from James Beard Award-winning chef Tyson Cole originated in Austin, the Montrose location in Houston has become an essential part of the community and of the city’s sushi scene.
Although there is an a la carte menu, Uchi’s forte is omakase. The huge, wraparound counter in the middle of the dining room is manned at all times by several sushi chefs. Diners seated at the bar put in their food orders directly with the chef. That model adds a layer of “chef’s choice” service to every meal. (Servers are there, but mainly for drink orders or to handle special requests or issues. Even when ordering off the menu, Uchi’s talented and friendly sushi chefs are known to make a suggestion or two, often pointing novice diners or familiar regulars in the right direction depending on seasonal availability and freshness. It’s the kind of joint frequented by folks who understand and appreciate high-level sushi execution — a true favorite among aficionados of the cuisine.