Omakase is Japanese for "entrust." If you order omakase in a Japanese sushi bar, the chef will choose what you eat. It often means that you will receive the best quality fish of the night.
In Houston, omakase has some different meanings. In some restaurants, it just means a sushi or sashimi sampler plate, including the most popular, and ordinary, offerings. But a few Houston restaurants have Japanese sushi chefs who use omakase not just to show off their freshest fish, but to demonstrate their creativity and artistry.
I am on a mission to find the best omakase experience in Houston.
My quest began at Sushi Jin, a Japanese restaurant on Westheimer near Dairy Ashford that looks fairly ordinary. Robb Walsh praised it for its fresh fish. He is right; the fish is quite fresh. But I wanted to see what the Japanese sushi chef would do if we ordered omakase.
So we sat at the sushi bar between two couples, both speaking Japanese. I asked the chef to make us whatever he wanted. I told him that we would eat anything. He asked whether we wanted anything from the kitchen. I said, "no." I never said "omakase," but he got the idea.
The first dish was hamachi or yellowtail served as sashimi. The chef used a kitchen torch to barely caramelize the exterior of the raw fish. This minimal cooking added a complexity to the fish, which was enhanced by a tasty, nearly clear sauce made from yuzu, a Japanese citrus. Although I have tried a number of dishes with yuzu, this combination of fish and sauce was different and very interesting.
Toro, or fatty tuna, was served simply as sashimi with some real Japanese wasabi, not the imitation wasabi horseradish that you get in most sushi restaurants. The toro needed no cooking and no flavor additives because it had a rich flavor and texture standing alone. So we ate all the fish first, and then the wasabi.
The chef carved raw Scallops to create a flower shape. Like the hamachi, they were barely caramelized on top with the kitchen torch. As much as I like scallops, they rarely do much for me as sashimi or sushi. But these scallops had an amazing sweetness, either created by using high quality scallops, or the slight caramelization. The chef also helped by telling us not to use soy sauce -- sage advice because the scallops needed no additional flavor.
I was surprised when the chef served salmon sushi. Although popular here, salmon is generally not served raw in Japan because of the risk of parasites. I wondered why the chef would serve this non-traditional item. Perhaps, it was to show off the skill most prized by Japanese sushi chefs, to perfectly sculpt the piece of fish over and around the rice. But then he said, "eat that with yuzu sauce" -- the same sauce we had with the hamachi. Again, his advice made the dish sing. The combination of salmon with yuzu was something I had never tried and turned a well-crafted, but ordinary, sushi dish into something extraordinary.
Finally, I departed from our omakase arrangement and ordered an unusual dish that is hard to find here: mirugai or giant clam. The chef looked surprised. "Not too many people order that." I responded, "Is it good?" "Oh yes, very fresh" he replied. As we bit into the mirugai, our eyes opened in surprise to the slightly sweet, sea-essence flavor and the slightly crisp texture.
Why omakase is special
Our entire omakase experience was eye opening. Eating ordinary sushi and sashimi can become dull because it's just raw fish. But in the hands of a master, fresh fish can be sculpted, or barely cooked, or paired with a simple condiment or sauce that makes the dish utterly new, while still remaining in the tradition.
I had the sense that, if we got to know this chef, he might go even further out on a limb, serving us even more creative or unusual dishes. Nonetheless, this night, he served two non-Japanese strangers one of the most creative fish dinners we have had.
Can Omakase in Houston get any better?
Does Sushi Jin serve the best omakase meal in Houston? I plan to try it at a few restaurants that are very Japanese, such as Teppay and Nippon. If you know of others that are worthwhile, please let me know.