On the surface, a meal at Hidden omakase, located at 5353 West Alabama, has the hallmarks of a traditional Japanese experience. The plates are beautiful, the garnishes demanding and the small bites progress with a series of exemplary nigiri before concluding with a light and sweet dessert. However, once you understand a bit about the executive chef Niki vongthong the background and examining the ingredients, the menu becomes a tale of culinary influences that weave their way through not only the history of Houston cuisine, but that of various countries as well.
Vongthong is, in every way, a descendant of the Houston food scene. His family were the original owners of Asia Market, the grocery store and the Thai restaurant. “I didn’t want to take over the grocery store. I wanted to learn more about cooking. I wanted to become more global, ”Vongthong said. She attended Culinary Institute Le Nôtre for a year, then landed her first professional job at Straits, now closed, at CITYCENTRE. Still, that didn’t satisfy her urge to travel culinary, so she went on to intern in Spain at the Gulf Resort Hotel – her first time outside of the United States. She would then return to Houston and spend six years in Uchi before working at the hapless Aqui under the direction of controversial chef Paul Qui.
The Hidden Omakase menu is full of tributes to Japan, such as notes from the prefecture where a dish originated from. the Sakura masu is from Aomori, while Kawahagi, otherwise known as Filefish Filefish, winks at Oita. The latter is embellished with a piece of soft and tender fish liver as well as very small crunchy brine shrimp. Another tradition: to navigate through a progression of tuna nigiri in ascending levels of fat: akami, or lean tuna fancifully garnished with “bacon” made from the fattier toro, chutoro and otoro.
Three course in my 13 course meal, I thought to myself, “It was a perfect progression.” I had just reveled in a Boomamotos oyster enhanced with iced yuzu and silky coriander oil with emerald hues, Sakura masu, silky cherry salmon made even more delicious by its citrus buttermilk and dill oil bath, and superb Kampachi, topped with a teaspoon of candied yuzu kosho (finely grated citrus fruit accompanied by green chilli).
All Vongthong nigiri have something to complement the flavor of the fish. The superb Kampachi arrives topped with a teaspoon of preserved yuzu kosho (finely grated citrus fruit with green chili). In the preserved yuzo kosho is a hint of the Thai cuisine she grew up with. A mainstay of cooking relies on fermented and preserved ingredients including rice noodles, fish, fish sauce and shrimp paste. “I like everything that is stored and fermented,” she said. “It just gives it a deeper flavor.”
A5 Wagyu nigiri, thinly sliced and seared in front of the guests in the preparation area, is accentuated by a dispersion of seeds of perilla (shiso) from Thailand (sent by Vongthong’s cousin), as well as shiso “chimichurri”. In these demanding touches, the influence of Vongthong’s time in Uchi is evident. “Working at Uchi – of course, it’s more of a modern type of sushi,” she said. “I saw people come and eat saying, ‘Your nigiri is too seasoned and I can’t taste the fish,’ and I tell them, ‘there are more traditional places to eat, you know? I try not to overdo it, but I want you to know that this is my take on nigiri. I like to do something different with it.
At a meal like this, something with foie gras is almost a must-have, and Vongthong served up a creative version. It was wrapped in nori, topped with fig and chilli jam, and a triangle of fried chicken skin protruded proudly above it, like the sail of a small boat.
In fact, something else happened that looked a lot like the typical presentation of nigiri foie gras, and it wasn’t, which made it even more delicious. Instead, it was a large rectangular piece of kinoko, or King Trumpet Mushrooms seared in brown butter and garnished with mushroom relish.
Vongthong sources her fish in Japan, but she is not married there. For example, the Boomamotos oysters used for the first course of my meal come from the coast of Massachusetts. It is also soft shell crab season, and Vongthong sources in Maine.
I almost laughed out loud in the penultimate lesson: practically melting spaghetti with fermented eggs, parmesan and dried chili. This small but high carb final dish seemed designed to silence guys who brag after a good meal that they’re still hungry and then have to go to Whataburger. I was only able to finish half of it. Even funnier: Vongthong admits that she too could be guilty of your old Whataburger stop after a fancy dinner.
Although I only finished half of my pasta, I would have hurt myself if needed to finish the dessert: Matcha cream with a forbidden rice base and topped with pearl bubu arare, which are tiny round rice crackers.
A clue that Hidden Omakase is indulging in whimsical flights: the restaurant is hidden behind a comic book window. Beyond the front door, the dining room is sleek and uncluttered, almost clinically. The pandemic required acrylic dividers between parties and the staging area – but the small units created by the dividers actually provide some welcome privacy in the otherwise open space. It’s a bit of a spare, and hopefully the white space on the left wall will be home to a colorful mural someday.
Originally a cook Billy Kin (recently from the now closed Blackbird Izakaya in the Heights) was in charge of the cooking, and he brought Vongthong, say the Houston Chronicle: “Often, women chefs and cooks are neglected. Niki has a lot of great ideas, but she doesn’t have a platform to present them. Kin left shortly after the restaurant opened, but her advocacy for a female chef made Vongthong one of the few to deal with high-end Japanese cuisine. She calls Jimmy kieu his right arm (which I joked is now his official title) and John pham also helps with the procedure.
A meal here doesn’t come cheap. It’s $ 150 per person. However, customers might be encouraged to know that the traditional costs of 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 this situation while you can. (Although I brought four different kinds of sake, my table mate and I happily worked on killing a bottle of champagne throughout the meal.)
Hidden Omakase only has 16 seats (which will soon increase to 18), reservations are required and the word on the street indicates it can take up to two months to secure one. Reservations are released weekly at midnight two weeks before siege via Resy, and at the time of this writing, the next two weeks seem already booked. Tip: keep an eye on Omakase Hidden Instagram Account. If there are cancellations or places are still available for dates in the near future, the restaurant will post them there.