Exclusive: One of Austin’s top sushi chefs leaving for Chicago

One of Austin’s great culinary characters, a sushi obsessive with a relentless curiosity, is leaving town.

Kyoten Sushiko chef-owner Otto Phan, who started his business as an East Austin trailer before opening a quick-service lunch spot and austere omakase, has decided to move to Chicago to further pursue his lofty food goals. He has operated Kyoten, which ranked in the Top 15 in the city in both of the last two Austin360 Dining Guides, since July 2016.

“The goal has always been to be the best sushi chef in the world, and I know the pathway is a lot shorter if I move on,” Phan said. “It was going to take LeBron James a long time if he stayed in Cleveland to get that first championship”

Otto Phan prepares Tasmanian ocean trout nigiri at Kyoten Sushiko. Jay Janner/AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Phan, who briefly worked for sushi master Masa Takayama in New York, said that in order to ascend to his desired heights in the food world, he needed to be in a “Michelin-starred marketplace,” a city where the restaurants are ranked by the vaunted Michelin Guide. The Houston native and University of Texas graduate has found a location in Chicago’s Logan Square, a seven-seat omakase located in a mixed-use development on the edge of the city’s excitement, not unlike his Mueller restaurant in Austin.

Kyoten’s seared madai. Matthew Odam/AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Phan will prepare his final dinner service — his meals are approximately 22 courses for $150 — at the end of July. Before he leaves, he will train his replacement, and Kyoten will remain in business under the same name. While he is not ready to announce the name of his replacement, Phan says it will be a young, hungry chef and not an established, well-known name.

“It won’t be exactly the same without me. He has some shoes to fill, but I think he will be able to do it,” Phan said.

While he said the move from the town he has called home off and on for 14 years is bittersweet, Phan, whose work is fueled by a love of ingredients and experimentation with vinegar flavor profiles, said the move is the next logical step in his career.  

“The stage needs to be bigger, and the risk needs to be higher,” Phan said. “I’ll be better in Chicago.”

And Austin will be a little less great without him.

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From the 2017 Austin360 Dining Guide:

This is my favorite sushi in Austin. But let’s address the elephant in the room: This is a surreal dining experience. You’re in a space smaller than a millionaire’s walk-in closet. And, with only eight seats available at the sushi counter, there’s a chance you and your date may be the only two people in the restaurant for the omakase experience. OK, even calling it a restaurant feels a little strange. But this is the bizarre and beautiful world chef Otto Phan has carved out for himself in the Mueller development.

Kyōten doesn’t offer the gorgeous design, sense of atmosphere, mannered service or wine list that Austin’s other top sushi restaurants have (though the sake pairings are very good), but what it does have is a chef driven by a joyful curiosity who creates exceptional sushi. The (possibly awkward) intimacy of the silent space affords you the chance to inquire about sourcing, technique and process from Phan as he hands you a buttery piece of sockeye salmon from Alaska, a bulbous piece of Oregon albacore kissed by sesame oil, Japanese pike mackerel bold enough to stand up to aged vinegar, and madai marinated in a vegetarian Japanese fish sauce that has none of the funky smell but all of the flavor of the traditional Southeast Asian variety.

There are not many dimensions to this unique dining experience, but the one it has can transfix you if you share the chef’s curiosity and give yourself over to it. And, if omakase isn’t your thing, there’s no better sushi served at lunch anywhere in town.


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