Otto Phan, the opinionated chef behind Kyoten — the ambitious and pricey sushi restaurant in Logan Square — is planning a second restaurant. Phan and his investors are opening Hinoki Sushiko, a two-floor Japanese restaurant with a 50-seat izakaya on the first floor and a 40-seat second-floor dining room specializing in omakase. There’s also a second-floor patio along the Elston Industrial Corridor. The restaurant is shooting for an April 8 unveiling.
Phan, almost channeling Marvel villain Thanos, calls opening a second Chicago restaurant “inevitable.” But Phan’s plans aren’t nefarious. While Kyoten sits in a minimalist space and serves as special-occasion sushi counter where Phan entertains customers with his wit, fancy fish, and technique. Hinoki is meant to be boisterous with a booming sound system and playlist curated by Jillian X, a local DJ.
“It should be an effing fun time,” Phan says. “It’s not stoic omakase; it’s going to be a guest-driven space where people come in and have a fun time. That will be the vibe — you can expect great music, and great drinks as well.”
Hinoki will move into the Fort Willow space next to the Local Foods building at the corner of Elston and Willow. The reservation-only second floor will be exclusively for 90-minute omakase dinners with one seating nightly. The first floor’s dark and moody space, vacated by DMK Restaurants, feels ideal for a casual izakaya.
Japanese pub food is something chef Gustavo Urbina-Barahona has experience as chef de cuisine at the shuttered Katana in River North. He also owns Sushi Hoshi, a Japanese with restaurants in Pilsen and West Town. Urbina-Barahona’s focus will be the first floor, while an extensive sake program will be curated by Scott Samos (Momotaro, Izakaya Mita, Katana).
Though he’s taking on more responsibilities with Hinoki, Phan says he’ll always be the chef preparing fish at Kyoten. To-go bento boxes will continue on the weekends at Kyoten, but the Logan Square restaurant will remain exclusively available for private dinners (in July 2020, the restaurant pivoted to $600 meals). That shift is the safest way to operate, Phan says, and there’s also a financial reason for it. During the pandemic, Phan has continued to push his fishmongers in Japan for top-quality seafood.
Phan explains that demand for fish at Japan’s high-end sushi restaurants dropped as the pandemic restricted tourism from America and China. That gave him an opportunity to build stronger rapports with Japanese fish markets. They had an abundance of supply, and he was happy to take fancy fish off their hands. That customer loyalty during a tough economic time will pay dividends for Kyoten and Hinoki.
“Buying fish isn’t like buying olive oil at the grocery store,” Phan says. “If you get a chance at a really great olive oil at the grocery store, it’s likely going to be there a year from now.”
Hinoki’s sushi will share commonalities with Kyoten, as both will serve Edomae sushi — sushi as it was served in 19th-century Tokyo, before refrigeration was affordable and accessible. They’ll use the same prized soy vinegar, a unique taste that sets Kyoten’s food apart from other sushi spots in Chicago. While Kyoten uses a luxurious inochi-no-ichi grain, one of the priciest in the world, that’s not the price point Hinoki seeks.
Phan moved to Chicago in 2018 from Austin, Texas, where he operated a restaurant, and he ruffled some feathers when he said he was focused on earning a Michelin star. The obsession annoyed locals, who felt he was painting himself as a sushi savior and suggesting that there were not good sushi options in Chicago. Phan never intended to rub Chicagoans the wrong way; he was focused on shattering expectations, as Chicago stands away from oceans in the middle of the country. While local critics gushed about Kyoten, Michelin inspectors failed to award the restaurant a star. That frustrated Phan, who saw other, more luxurious Japanese restaurants in Chicago receive stars.
Hinoki is a larger space and has more of the bells and whistles that Kyoten lacked. Michelin hasn’t announced how it will announce ratings after the pandemic, but Phan says he no longer needs the validation. Still, he has a sense of irony.
“Hilariously enough, I think I can get a Michelin star easier at Hinoki over here,” he says.
Hinoki stands in the shadow of Lincoln Yards, the sprawling — and controversial — development set as a gateway between Lincoln Park and Bucktown. Phan says he’s fallen for Chicago, but sees a disparity in how the city’s service industry treats the city. There’s more development on the North Side compared to the South Side. That’s something he wants to change.
“The South Side of Chicago needs something for sure — there’s a lot of demand,” Phan says. “I love Chicago, but the only knock on Chicago, as diverse as it is, it’s very segregated.”
There is interest to open more Hinoki locations across the country, but Phan and his partners aren’t ready to unveil their plans.
“There are tons of opportunities. You put in a Chinese restaurant [in an underserved area] and it’s going to go crazy, because to get good Chinese food you have to go to downtown, all the way to Chinatown, or get to Pilsen.”
Though he’ll have to scale up to feed more customers in Hinoki, Phan says he’s ready to give them the same level of experience he aims for at Kyoten. And this time, he’ll smile more while doing it.
Hinoki Sushiko, 1465 W. Willow Street, planned for an April 8 opening.