Houston Omakase Restaurant Offers Perfect Progressions & Surprising Influences
On the surface, a meal at Hidden Omakase, located at 5353 West Alabama, has the hallmarks of a traditional Japanese experience. The platings are beautiful, the garnishes exacting and the small bites progress through a series of exemplary nigiri before concluding with a light, sweet dessert. However, once you understand a little about executive chef Niki Vongthong’s background and examine the ingredients, the menu becomes a tale of culinary influences that weaves its way through not just Houston food history, but also that of various countries.
Vongthong is, in every sense, a descendant of Houston’s food scene. Her family were the original owners of Asia Market, the combination grocery store and Thai restaurant. “I didn’t want to take over the grocery store. I wanted to learn more about cooking. I wanted to go more global,” said Vongthong. She attended Culinary Institute Le Nôtre for a year, and then landed her first professional job at now-closed Straits in CITYCENTRE. Still, that didn’t satisfy her culinary wanderlust, so she next took an internship in Spain at the Gulf Resort Hotel — her first time outside the United States. She’d then return to Houston and spend six years at Uchi before working at ill-fated Aqui under controversial chef Paul Qui.
There are plenty of homages to Japan on the Hidden Omakase menu, such as the notes from which prefecture a dish originates. The Sakura Masu hails from Aomori, while Kawahagi, otherwise known as Thread-Sail Filefish, nods to Oita. The latter is accented with a mild, tender piece of the fish’s liver as well as very tiny, crunchy brine shrimp. Another tradition: sailing through a progression of tuna nigiri in ascending levels of fattiness: akami, or lean tuna whimsically topped with “bacon” made from the fattier toro, chutoro and otoro.
Three courses into my 13-course meal, I thought to myself, “That was a perfect progression.” I’d just revelled in a Boomamotos oyster accented with icy yuzu slush and silky, emerald-hued cilantro oil, Sakura Masu, silky cherry salmon made even more lush from its bath of citrus buttermilk and dill oil, and superb Kampachi, topped with a small dollop of preserved yuzu kosho (fine gratings of the citrusy fruit along with green chili).
All of Vongthong’s nigiri is accented with something to complement the flavor of the fish. The superb Kampachi arrives topped with a small dollop of preserved yuzu kosho (fine gratings of the citrusy fruit along with green chili). In the preserved yuzo kosho lies a hint of the Thai cuisine that she grew up with. A pillar of the cuisine relies on fermented and preserved ingredients, including some rice noodles, fish, fish sauce and shrimp paste. “I love all things preserved and fermented,” she said. “It just gives it a more profound flavor.”
A5 Wagyu nigiri, thinly sliced and seared in front of diners in the prep area, is accented with a scattering of perilla (shiso) seeds from Thailand (sent by Vongthong’s cousin), as well as shiso “chimichurri.” In these exacting touches, the influence of Vongthong’s time at Uchi is evident. “Working at Uchi — of course, it’s more of a modern kind of sushi,” she said. “I’ve had people come to eat say, ‘Your nigiri is over-seasoned and I can’t taste the fish,’ and I say, ‘there are more traditional places to eat you know?’ I try not to overdo it, but I want you to be able to tell that it’s my take on nigiri. I like to do something different with it.”
At a meal like this, something with foie gras is almost requisite, and Vongthong served a creative take. It was wrapped in nori, accented with fig-chili jam and a triangle of fried chicken skin proudly jutted above, like the sail of a tiny boat.
Actually, something else arrived looking very much like the typical foie gras nigiri presentation, and it wasn’t, which made it even more delightful. Instead, it was a firm, rectangular hunk of kinoko, or King Trumpet mushroom seared in brown butter and adorned with mushroom relish.
Vongthong sources fish from Japan — but she’s not married to it. For example, the Boomamotos oysters used for the first course of my meal come from the Massachusetts coast. It’s also soft shell crab season, and Vongthong sources those from Maine.
I nearly laughed aloud at the second-to-last course: spaghetti practically melting with fermented roe, Parmesan and dried chili. This final, small but carb-intensive dish seemed designed to shut up the guys who brag after a fine meal that they are still hungry and have to go to Whataburger afterward. I could only finish half. Even more funny: Vongthong confesses that she too might be guilty of ye olde Whataburger stop after a fancy dinner.
Despite only finishing half of my pasta, I would have hurt myself if necessary to polish off dessert: Matcha Custard with a base of forbidden rice and topped with pearl-like bubu arare, which are tiny, round rice crackers.
A hint that Hidden Omakase indulges in flights of fancy: The restaurant is obscured behind a window display of comic books. Beyond the front door, the dining space is sleek and clean-lined, nearly clinically so. The pandemic necessitated acrylic dividers between parties and the prep area — but the little units created by the dividers actually lend some welcome privacy in the otherwise open space. It’s a little spare, and I do hope that the blank white space on the right-side wall is going to be home to a colorful mural someday.
Originally, chef Billy Kin (recently of the now-shuttered Blackbird Izakaya in the Heights) was in charge of the kitchen, and he brought in Vongthong, telling the Houston Chronicle: “A lot of times female chefs and cooks get overlooked. Niki has a lot of interesting ideas, but she doesn’t have a platform to showcase it.” Kin left soon after the restaurant opened, but his advocacy for a woman chef had the result of Vongthong being one of the rare ones in charge of a high-end Japanese kitchen. She calls Jimmy Kieu her right-hand man (which I joked is now his official title) and John Pham also helps with the proceedings.
A meal here is not cheap. It’s $150 per person. However, guests might be heartened to know that traditional costs for such a multi-course experience are reduced by the fact that Hidden Omakase is BYOB — for now, at least. A liquor license is pending, according to Vongthong, so take advantage of that situation while you can. (Although I brought four different kinds of sake, my dining companion and I happily worked on slaying a bottle of Champagne the entire meal.)
Hidden Omakase only has 16 seats (soon increasing to 18), reservations are required, and word on the street indicates that it can take up to two months to secure one. Reservations are released weekly at midnight two weeks prior to seating via Resy, and as of this writing, the next two weeks appear to be already booked. Tip: keep an eye on the Hidden Omakase Instagram account. If there are cancellations or seats are still available for dates in the near future, the restaurant will post these there.