Despite its secretive name, Hidden Fish has been drawing a lot of attention since opening its doors five months ago in Kearny Mesa.
San Diego’s first all-omakase “speed” sushi bar began drawing near-capacity crowds even before a rave review appeared Jan. 17 in The New York Times. Now, its premium 90-minute, 18-course meal is almost completely sold out through March.
Owner and 15-year sushi chef John “Chef Kappa” Hong, 31, opened the 13-seat sushi counter in a tiny strip mall on Convoy Street in September. His concept was modeled on a speed omakase bar he visited in New York last winter. Diners pay upfront for either a 12-course, 50-minute meal for $50 or an 18-course, 90-minute dinner for $90. Based on what’s freshly arrived that morning from Japan’s Tsukiji market, the chefs decide the menu (omakase loosely translates as “I leave it up to you”).
The dishes are all served nigiri-style, meaning a bite-size handful of sushi rice topped with a dot of fresh-grated wasabi, fresh-fileted sliver of fish, a brush of house soy or yuzu sauce and either a dab of flavored topping, a sprinkle of sea salt or sesame seeds or a quick shave of lemon zest. The only accompaniments offered are fresh-sliced ginger and water with lemon to cleanse the palate.
On a recent weeknight visit I had to book two weeks in advance, every chair at Hidden Fish was filled. I was seated at the sleek, minimalist counter next to a woman named Jessica from San Jose, who’d read the Times review on the plane that morning and immediately booked the last available 90-minute seat that night. She loved her meal and planned to spread the word to her Bay Area friends.
That evening, the service came off with well-oiled, quiet and perfectly times precision. Two chefs serve the eight 50-minute diners and one serves the five 90-minute diners. All diners are seated at the appointed hour and service begins at the same time. The diners watch in rapt attention as the chefs filet, often score and sometimes sear each slice of fish, then prepare and dress each item before placing the dishes on the counter before the diners. Courses come out every 3 to 5 minutes, an efficient but unhurried service.
The chefs — mine that evening was 10-year sushi veteran Steven Phan — will describe each dish as it’s served and politely answer questions, but they prefer to let their food and customers do the talking. There’s quiet club music playing in the background, a pleasant atmosphere of social conversation, tableside wine, beer and sake service and bright overhead lighting that’s ideal for Instagramming the elegant food. Virtually every diner on my visit photographed each course as it arrived.
Hong said the only major change he’s made since opening is adapting to San Diego’s laid-back dining culture. The 12-course option was originally planned for 30 minutes, but diners felt too rushed. He also cut back the 90-minute service option from four meals a night to three because these well-heeled diners tend to stay longer and order even more a la carte courses after their meal.
My seatmate Jessica topped off her 18 courses with an extra $7 a-la-carte bite of seared halibut fin muscle. Eighteen courses sounds like a lot to consume, but it’s more like 18 mouthfuls of mostly lean protein, so it doesn’t feel overwhelming.
Hong has designed the meals as a journey through flavor and texture. The service begins with milder, cleaner-tasting fish and shellfish like Japanese sea bream, striped jack, halibut and goldeneye snapper and it progresses to more robust, salty, sour and smoky flavors, liked local uni with marinated salmon roe or cured Japanese mackerel with pickled kelp.
The dishes also alternate in mouthfeel, acidity and style. Tender squid was brightened with lemon; yellowtail belly with soy chimichurri had a sweet, earthy flavor; Japanese amberjack was enhanced with shaved black truffle. And seared o toro (described by Phan as a “Wagyu”-style breed of fatty fish) literally melted in the mouth.
Hong said he was “blown away” by the Times review, but he knows hype can die quickly with new restaurants. So he’s gratified to be seeing a growing number of twice-a-month regulars. Visitors so far have been pretty conservative in their tastes, but Hong hopes to offer more exotic a la carte items in future months for more adventurous eaters.
Hidden Fish Omakase Sushi Bar
Hours: 50-minute service offered on the hour from 5 to 10 p.m.; 90-minute service offered at 5, 7 and 9 p.m. Open Tuesdays-Sundays. Closed Mondays.
Where: 4764 Convoy St., Suite A, Kearny Mesa
Phone: (858) 210-5056
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