Last week I flew to Chicago to have dinner at Kyoten, an omakase sushi restaurant in Logan Square which opened just before Labor Day. This is the new location for Chef Otto Phan whose Kyōten Sushiko has been my favorite restaurant in Austin for the past two years. He’s moved to the Windy City completely, and his new effort is even better than what he was doing in my home town.
Making the Decision to Fly Out for Dinner
I once went to Barcelona for a Saturday night dinner, of course that was to eat at the legendary El Bulli. The idea of getting on the plane to experience a meal isn’t foreign to me.
I don’t make the decision to fly for a meal lightly, and I don’t make restaurant recommendations unless I’m sure. Everyone I ever recommended Elephant Jumps in Northern Virginia to as truly outstanding Thai food has thanked me for it. And I’ve heard from scores of readers about it over time.
When I first wrote about my favorite sushi place in Austin I didn’t think it would last because it was too good. Chef Otto, who had worked at Nobu and Masa in New York, needed a bigger stage. Two years later he decamped from the Mueller neighborhood looking for the recognition that his skills deserve in a city that’s Michelin-rated.
On the way home from Tokyo in May where my wife and I ate at Jiro Roppongi and Sushi Masuda we lamented being on the other side of the world from such meals, but comforted ourselves to know that we had Kyōten Sushiko in Austin. And immediately when we arrived home we learned Chef Otto was leaving. He still has the Austin restaurant, they put out a nice lunch service of rolls and bowls, and he plans to re-open it for dinner someday after he trains a new chef. But for now there’s nothing in Austin that compares.
Beginning Our Culinary Adventure
We flew Southwest Airlines into Midway airport, they had the better schedule than taking American into O’Hare. It was a long Uber that cost about $30. We pulled up in front of Kyoten 20 minutes early. There isn’t much signage, it’s on the ground floor of an apartment. You’ll walk in the door and there is a small waiting area, but the chef’s waiter came in and welcomed us right away to the sushi bar.
I was surprised that all 6 of us that would be dining were at the restaurant early. Everyone allowed a buffer for traffic. It’s important to arrive promptly for Kyoten, the chef is making each piece one-by-one for each diner and arriving late means missing out.
Pre-Meal: the Chef Prepares and We Order Sake
There’s a thoughtful menu of white wine and champagne as well as sake. The chef says he likes sake that takes like wine and wine that tastes like sake. I was surprised to see topo chico as his mineral water, he’s definitely come up from Austin.
As for sake I don’t consider myself an expert by any stretch but I do enjoy a couple of glasses with my meal. The Demon Slayer is likely popular because of the name, though I’m not a huge fan. The Ancient Legend is good but heavy, almost whiskey-like, something to save for the end of the meal. The least expensive Strawberry sake is fine, and I really enjoy the Manju.
As the chef was preparing to begin the meal he brought out a piece of fresh wasabi to grate. That’s the first test of any good sushi restaurant, if they aren’t using fresh wasabi I’m not interested.
However the biggest differentiator in sushi is often the rice. As Kyoten they’re using a special grain from Japan called Inochi no Ichi. Rice is refreshed throughout the meal for freshness and two different preparations are used as well — later in the meal, as the courses move into fattier pieces, the chef switches to rice with greater vinegar.
Kyoten’s Phenomenal Omakase
The meal begins with some more familiar staples. I won’t cover every piece. I remember how impressed I was by the ocean trout at Tetsuya’s in Sydney many years ago, but I enjoy a good piece of ocean trout to start off a sushi meal just as much.
The star of any sushi meal is usually going to be the fatty tuna, almost without even trying. Much more revealing is what a chef does with lean tuna. Here it was smoked. It had just enough fat, and a deep earthy flavor that was fantastic.
Smoked Lean Tuna
One of my favorite pieces was the sardine.
Ever since the start of the chef’s time in a storefront in Austin I’ve loved his shrimp preparation, which he’s varied somewhat as he’s experimented. Here he will brûlée one side of the shrimp, and spoons a head sauce made from the shell of the shrimp over it. Delicious!
Uni or sea urchin is either something you love or hate. It’s a strong flavor, very creamy, the foie gras of sushi. I very much enjoy it, but was probably ruined in Tokyo at Sushi Masuda and Jiro Roppongi finally trying for the first time yellow (male) uni. It doesn’t last as long as the orange uni you’re usually served but it’s a cleaner and more refreshing flavor.
In something of an homage to Masa Takamaya, who is known for toro with caviar, the chef here cooks a piece of fish to form a small crust over the top and dollops caviar (Idaho farm-raised white sturgeon). It might seem a gimmick, caviar over sushi, but the way the fish crisps it really works to create layers of flavor.
One item that never leaves the Kyoten menu is his snapper marinated in a fish sauce, it’s consistently delivered every time and I wish he’d serve seconds.
He boiled an octopus, serving it at just the right moment so that it was soft and melt in your mouth, though I have to admit that the sauce he paired it with wasn’t as flavorful and delicious as what he’d been doing in Austin.
Whenever you ask anyone what their favorite piece of fish is, toro almost always gets the nod. Im not going to lie. I love a good piece of fatty tuna. However it’s almost too easy, and overall I prefer fish that really forces the chef to use their skills cutting just the best piece and then balancing its flavors. I’ll never turn down fatty tuna, though.
After all of the fish was served we were given a piece of Miyazaki A5 beef which melts in your mouth, and is well paired with the more heavily vinegared rice.
Miyazaki A5 Beef
The final course was fruit, but before that was the chef’s tamago — something I wish he sold to go, as a standalone, I’d definitely take some away to enjoy with my coffee the next morning. I always prefer a dense tamago ‘cake’ to something fluffier or more omelette-like.
Kyoten is Well Worth the Price
Kyoten is not an inexpensive meal. The quoted price is $220 per person, but bear in mind that the approach is very Japanese. This includes tax and there is no tipping, there isn’t even a line for a tip on the credit card slip. You make reservations online and pay half up front, and the balance (plus beverages) after the meal.
Think of it as $170++, which is essentially $55 more than he was charging in Austin. He’s able to do more — he’s investing more in the rice, he’s putting caviar on fish, and it’s a nicer space. But I wouldn’t be going as casually as I did in Austin.
Chef Otto Has Come a Long Way From His Food Trailer, a Photo Of Which Still Hangs in the Restaurant
In New York there’s Masa (but will Masa Takayama be there?), Sushi Nakazawa (but the chef now has his place in the Trump Hotel DC to look after too), and Sushi Amane. Kyoten isn’t performing at the top of what New York offers. Yet. But there’s little like this in Chicago. If you’re looking for a special experience there you should definitely check it out.