Saturday, January 05, 2008

Omakase at Sushi Jin

Ordering omakase

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.

Sushi Jin

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.


Plinko said...

to me omakase means tasting menu, much like chef gadsby brought to houston at his restaurant NOE.

at the suggestion of a fellow chef friend, we tried Nippon. (we = chef gadsby and plinio sandalio). and i must say, we were extremely dissapointed. we were told the omakase was amazing there, as well as the karage. i would suggest not to go there because of our bad experience, but as a chef i must try every place (regardless of any criticism). so i suggest you to try it, it may be great.

the one and only place in houston that chef gadsby and i have had the best omakase is Kubos in the Rice Village.

we've gone to austin to try Uchi. we absolutely loved it and became friends with chef tyson cole. we immidiately proclaimed that the best sushi in texas is at uchi.

but after our visit at Kubos we found a high contender for best sushi. While uchi is very modern and creative, Kubos is very traditional and amazing. Both in my opinion are amazing restaurant with amazing chefs.

so in houston, i highly recommend you try Kubos. tell the chef you are there under the recommendations of Plinio Sandalio and Chef Robert Gadsby.

anonymouseater said...

Chef -- Thank you very much for the suggestions. I value your opinion a great deal.

I tried the omakase at Uchi a while ago and discussed it here. As you said, it seemed like a hybrid between the American tasting menus, like what I have tried at Noe, and a more traditional Japanese omakase. Although Uchi seemed more American than Japanese, it was excellent, creative food.

Kubo's is one of my family's favorite restaurants, in part because of their always-interesting monthly specials. But we have been slightly disappointed with a starter called "omakase sashimi." It was a decent, but ordinary, assortment of sashimi, plus a few fried shrimp heads. I get the impression that the omakase you ordered was different -- an entire omakase meal? If so, I will have to try that next time.

Thanks for your thoughts on Nipon. I hear they have a Japanese-language-only list of specials that is excellent. So perhaps I will skip the omakase, request the Japanese language menu, and pick some items at random.

anonymouseater said...

By the way Chef -- When can we look forward to the opening of Soma? I can't wait.

The Blot said...

Your experience at Sushin Jin sounds really delicious, I'll have to stop by and try their sushi sometime soon! Thanks for your insight.

Anonymous said...

how much was your meal? did you get enough to eat?

i'd love to hear about the prices of other omakase meals in houston, as well.

- nick

anonymouseater said...

Hi Nick

I can't remember the exact price, but I believe it was around $90, not including sake.

We told the chef to stop when we were full. I suppose the price will be more or less, depending on the size of your appetite.

I don't know the prices for omakase elsewhere. When I wrote this, I had planned to try a lot of different Omakase meals. But I stopped when I found Sushi Jin. I need to pick up that project again soon.

So many restaurants. So little time.

Anonymous said...

This is a very great information on to where to have a nice sushi. I've been to Sushi Jin before but never asked the omakase....even in Japan I only tried the popular sushi restaurants with conveyor. I will try the Kubos place mayb in the future. Also, is there a good ramen shop around Houston? Again, thanks for the info.

cojonesajones said...

I've had the 'omakase' at Sushi Jin twice recently. Obviously it varies from chef to chef and depends on their 'inventory' of fish. I'm no sushi expert but really enjoyed both occasions. The fish was of extremely high quality, I was given all the most exotic ($$) menu items (giant clam, urchin roe, toro, the small toro tendon bits - don't remember the name-, and the incredibly rich and sweet scallops), and the chef showed off his technical skills by cutting the fish in very ornate ways. Each time the Omakase cost me about $45 for one person.
After tasting the quality of ingredients at Sushi Jin it is very difficult for me to try other local sushi bars.
I've been disappointed with the quality of fish relative to Sushi Jin at Oishi, Blue Fish, and Yao.