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Chef Billy Kin Brings Two Exciting New Japanese Restaurants to One Familiar Heights Space

He’ll serve sushi omakase at Kinokawa, while Tesserack will serve as a casual izakaya

a man with tattoos and wearing an apron leans over a plank of wood in a woodworking shop
Billy Kin of Blackbird Izakaya has a new Heights restaurant in the works.
Billy Kin

Chef Billy Kin, known for beloved Heights restaurant Blackbird Izakaya and Galleria-area spot Hidden Omakase, has a new project in the works for the former Golden Bagels location at 3119 White Oak Drive.

The spot will be two restaurants in one — a reservations-only omakase restaurant, and a more casual izakaya-style eatery. The first phase of the project, the omakase restaurant, is expected to open in early November. Both restaurants will incorporate influences from Kin’s many projects and previous jobs, as well as establishments run by his father and grandfather throughout Asia and San Francisco. Called Kinokawa, the omakase portion is named after a Japanese restaurant Kin’s father ran in Taiwan for more than three decades.

The izakaya half, which will be called Tesserack, will likely open in early 2022, once Kin secures a liquor license. That aspect of the restaurant is inspired in part by the science fiction film Interstellar, a favorite of Kin and his daughter. The restaurants, like the movie, are “about communicating with the past and the present,” Kin says.

Kin’s previous Heights restaurant, Blackbird Izakaya, opened in 2018 and gained a loyal following for its innovated take on Japanese cuisine, including dishes like curry katsu and super-fresh sushi. However, the restaurant could not withstand the early days of the pandemic and Houston stay-home ordinance, and shuttered in July 2020.

Kin took a few months off of cooking, but was quickly tapped by restaurateur Tuan Tran to help open Hidden Omakase, which debuted in a Galleria-area office building in December 2020. Kin worked to get the much-lauded restaurant off the ground, eventually handing the kitchen over to chef Niki Vongthong at the end of March.

Like many people at the beginning of the pandemic, Kin says he went through a low period, especially after the closure of Blackbird. But working at Hidden re-inspired him. “I was thinking, ‘I’m never going to open a restaurant again,’” he says. “But Tuan’s the one who helped me rediscover that it’s fun to cook again.”

He also never thought he’d land in the Heights again, saying he had an “emotional attachment” to Blackbird’s location and his many neighborhood regulars. But when Golden Bagels closed in September, the timing — and the location — were just right.

For Kinokawa, Kin will be working with connections he made during his tenure at Hidden Omakase to source fresh seafood directly from Japan. He plans to focus on edomae-style sushi, which stems from 1820s Japan, before electric refrigeration. In edomae sushi, the fish is frequently preserved in soy sauce, vinegar or simmered in broth.

At Tesserack, the menu will focus on Japanese whiskeys and craft cocktails. Kin said he is also planning on putting some of Blackbird’s most popular dishes on the menu.

He’s also incorporating a pandemic hobby — woodworking — into the design of both restaurants, building an old-fashioned, non-electric ice box for Kinokawa to emulate those used in 19th century Japan, and made nearly all the furniture for both restaurants by hand.

Kin says one of his inspirations is George Nakashima, an architect and woodworker who is considered the father of the American Craft Movement. “After reading his book, I saw the way he sees nature and wood is really similar to how a chef sees food ingredients.”

Kin says he’s building

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