Otto Phan, the chef and owner of Austin’s essential chef’s choice sushi counter Kyōten Sushiko, officially expands to Chicago on Thursday under the shortened moniker Kyōten. Within a minimalist eight-seat, 1,200-square-foot Joel Berman-designed space in Logan Square, he’ll serve a $220 (inclusive of tax and tip) omakase hinged on rice—unquestionably the most vital component to sushi. Not fish as many think. And that price tag is just a touch less expensive than originally planned, but still up from Austin’s $150 cost.
Expect approximately 20 bites in an omakase service that should last around two hours. And down the line, Phan will introduce a more budget-friendly lunch service.
In terms of sourcing, Phan is bringing in about 70 percent of his fish from Japan—both from Tokyo’s Tsukiji fish market, and from “a guy” in Fukuoka, says the chef. He’ll cull the rest from Tasmania and the U.S., both the East and West Coast.
For those unfamiliar with Edomae sushi, a type of sushi-making which originated during the 19th century in Tokyo (originally named Edo) before refrigeration, this style incorporates fish preserved and fermented in various ways. And while Edomae is indeed the philosophy that many top (but not all) sushi chefs in Tokyo follow, it served as a source of inspiration for Phan, too. But he wants guests to know that Kyōten “is not a traditional Edomae sushi restaurant.” Though he will be prepping his fish via a number of different aging, curing, and marinating techniques—and centering on simplicity—one will also find more contemporary and luxe flourishes like caviar and truffles. And these higher-end ingredients are also what differentiates Kyōten in Chicago from the original Austin outlet. The space here is more refined, and beyond caviar and truffles, Phan will bring in pricier fish more frequently, like kinmedai (golden eye snapper) and amadai (tilefish).
But what Phan is most excited about is his rice. “I am using the Inchi no Ichi grain of rice that I wasn’t able to use at the Austin price point,” he explains. “It drives the menu in every aspect: taste, timing, order, menu format and context.” This type of grain is plump and looks almost like arborio rice (what one uses to make risotto), but is more translucent and slightly polished. Phan says that Kyōten will be the only domestic restaurant using this varietal, which he first tried at 3-Michelin starred Gyoten in Fukuoka.
He’s also planning to prep two different batches of rice per service, each with unique ratios of aged red vinegar— a common practice at top sushi bars in Japan, but rather uncommon in the U.S. So, a meal will begin with lighter-seasoned rice and more delicate fish, followed by otsumami (appetizers), before moving into rice with a heavier dose of vinegar and thusly more intense flavor, which balances richer, fattier fish like saba (mackerel) and toro. Traditionally, omakase meals begin with otsumami before moving into a chef’s desired progression of nigiri. So beginning with nigiri, then moving into otsumami, then back to nigiri is quite unorthodox.
And rice impacts otsumami, too. It’s “driven by the rice, or rather what doesn’t go particularly well with rice,” explains Phan. For example, Phan believes that his rice is often too strong for shellfish, so there will often be an otsumami of shellfish sashimi served mid-meal. And that’s how he’s curating those mid-meal dishes: “ingredients that I love serving, but don’t really call out for rice, like fresh oysters.”
In terms of beverages, Phan will offer a $90 daiginjo sake pairing (that’s the most premium level of sake), adding “I only like expensive sake, otherwise you’re often better off with beer or wine.” He’ll pour those too, plus Japanese whisky. “Philosophically, we keep our list short and concise, and make sure every bottle is exceptional, with our markup lower,” he explains. Corkage will run $50.
A few months back, Phan told the Chicago Tribune, “There’s no good sushi in Chicago.” He now says, “I feel sorry about that, and feel that was very ignorant of me … I should have said that sushi in Chicago IS BAD.” Phan continues to add that he’s aware his views of good sushi are probably not congruent with everyone, but he has a point when he states, “there’s a reason why Chicago doesn’t have any Michelin-starred sushi restaurants.”
Regardless, Phan says he’s “super happy and excited to be in Chicago” and that the city is “great place of dreamers where big things happen!” And on that note, two Michelin stars are precisely what he’s after.
Kyōten’s hours of operation will run Tuesday through Saturday, two seatings per night at 6 and 8:45 p.m. Resys are now live through Tock. Stay tuned for more details in time for the opening.