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Restaurant review: Unique Otoko captivates with Japanese flavor, style


Chef Yoshi Okai tilts his head. His eyebrows dance. A playful cockiness slices a grin across his face as he mocks Hawaiian kampachi before gliding back to his spot behind the counter at Otoko.

Japanese kanpachi is far superior. Colder water means supple, oily fish. No contest.

Scoffing at the comparison, he readies his massive blade for another pass at a glorious fish flown in from Japan.

Trash talk in a pristine kaiseki. You won’t find that in Okai’s native Kyoto. You also won’t hear James Brown and the Rolling Stones on the stereo or see an Astro Boy manga doll on the shelf behind the counter.

The tradition of the kaiseki traces ancient roots, with modern iterations in Japan featuring varied progressions of elegant seasonal dishes — usually including raw, steamed, grilled, soup and dessert courses. The ceremony is artful, considered, precise and restrained, and the setting is often austere. There’s no smack talk or oversized laughter coming from a giggling chef.

But this is Austin.

Tiny Otoko is located up a discreet staircase in the courtyard of the South Congress Hotel. No sign draws attention to the restaurant. Inside, the charred shou sugi ban black wood adjacent to the 12-seat counter — Otoko’s only seating — and the brilliant light panels resembling a shoji screen that extend from wall to ceiling echo Japan, but with the awe, menace and futurism of a Stanley Kubrick film.

Draped in sleeves of tattoos, his shock of black hair electrified like the glowing stripes behind him, Okai resembles a rock star on stage. And it’s not the curated look of a poser. He has fronted three garage rock bands — Black Panda, the Kodiaks and (currently) Kuroneko — since moving to Austin from Los Angeles in the late ’90s.

Okai worked at Uchi and Uchiko, where he served for six years as the restaurant’s sushi chef. It is at Tyson Cole’s Austin trailblazer where he met Paul Qui, one of the founding partners of Otoko.

Qui, who has spent the past several months managing the ongoing legal and personal fallout from misdemeanor charges of assault and unlawful restraint, hired Okai to work for him at both East Side King and later at his eponymous restaurant in East Austin. He tapped Okai to run Otoko, which opened in March, and though Qui intends to spend more time at the restaurant in the coming months, the plan from the beginning was to give the highly skilled Okai his own kitchen.

Okai pays homage to the traditions of Kyoto while updating the proceedings and turning up the volume. Think Bob Dylan going electric.

With a hefty price tag — $150 before tax, tip and drinks — and hard-to-obtain seats that go on sale at the first of each month, most diners arrive for an evening at Otoko fueled by giddy wonder and effervescent expectations, from the mother and her slightly embarrassed young son seated next to me to the worldly wine professional and her party at the far end of the bar. Of course, you may also encounter the obnoxious loud talker who engages chef Okai with presumptuous familiarity, but everything is a numbers game. At least the mouthy diner wasn’t wearing flip flops at this restaurant that feels plucked from Japan or Manhattan and evokes more of a sense of occasion than any other spot in town.

The meal winds through about 22 dishes, and Okai’s history with sushi informs one of the biggest deviations from traditional kaiseki service. In addition to a couple of sashimi dishes, Okai whirls diners through nine nigiri bites early in the meal.

In such an intimate space, and with staggered seating, your neighbor’s dish might offer a glimpse of what is to come. As Okai delivers the sushi on individual gold plates, diners reach with a mixture of glee and nerves to retrieve each bite.

Each piece of sushi from Okai is a miniature work of art deceptively full of flavor. His beloved kanpachi is slicked with the sweet, salty tang of a delicate nikiri sauce made with soy sauce, mirin and sake, the bite finished with the pop of Meyer lemon.

The kanpachi is not alone in earning the chef’s praise. He slides me a crimson-edged white sea bass with clean ocean flavor shining through a translucent sauce cooked down from sake and plum.

“Best sea bass ever,” he says of the fish from Baja.

Okai doesn’t limit his commentary to hyperbole. As we remark on the gentle smoke lacing a tender piece of Mishima wagyu pooled with a viscous negimiso sauce, Okai’s eyes illuminate: “Sexy!”

That sauce was Okai’s best of 2013. He catalogues his greatest hits, says affable sous chef Sam Walter, who worked with Okai at Uchiko before moving over to Justine’s Brasserie.

When we later receive a grilled course of meaty mushrooms and dinosaur kale in a thick, reduced sauce, we’re told the dashi, garlic and black sesame sauce was the chef’s 2014 superstar.

Describing his favorite sauces, Okai’s voice reaches a lilting crescendo fit for a ventriloquist rock doll. All that’s missing is the mic cord wrapped around his wrist and forearm.

The vocal adornment entertains, but the food rocks even without the hype man. Silver-edged masaba slicked with tamari and stacked with matchsticks of piquant Japanese ginger makes an obvious case for why it’s the chef’s favorite fish. Silky clean flounder brightened with lime shines with simplicity, and scalding white oak singes slabs of hamachi served with smoked tamari sauce.

The standard beverage pairing — $75 for five glasses — takes the decision-making out of your hands, which is good when the varied dishes come at you steadily over two-plus hours. Most of them will be sake and white wine, to pair with the sushi and more delicate dishes. You may start with a creamy champagne from Pierre Paillard before moving on to the acidic sweetness of Joto Daiginjo sake and a dry 2014 Prager Steinriegl Riesling.

The wine service and any complementary assistance from servers or management come swiftly and without distracting from the progression of the meal.

If you want to avoid alcohol, take the rare treat to indulge in a thoughtful pairing sans booze. The $50 nonalcoholic pairing is full of tiny surprises, like the sweet piquancy of a guava-ginger welcomer, the smoothness of a milky citrus drink or the tart funkiness of a pineapple concoction that includes vegan fish sauce.

For more of a taste of what the beverage program can deliver, visit the adjacent and equally hidden bar Watertrade before or after your visit, but be prepared to pay $20 after tax and included tip for a superb cocktail at the dimly lit and quasi-public hideout that’s all distressed mirrors, gold and leather.

The $150 price tag for food at Otoko will stagger some, but the ingredients are proof as to where much of the money goes. Sustainably raised bluefin tuna glazed with nikiri sauce and shimmering like a garnet sea at sunset melts like a substance suspended between solid and liquid. A Shigoku oyster cradling a hibiscus-colored flower and pert baubles of smoked steelhead roe tastes like sex beside a beach campfire.

Uni showed up twice: one from Hokkaido, Japan, the sumptuous oceanic jiggle backed by smoked sturgeon caviar and fresh wasabi and balanced precariously on a tiny bed of rice; the other, from Chile, carrying smoked steelhead roe and stuffed inside a boat of cucumber like gourmet “ants on a log.” I’ll let you guess which Okai prefers.

Okai and his spartan team — he patrols the floor with Walter and one other team member, as a couple more work behind the scenes — flash creativity with dishes like an early course of baby pork belly cured in sake before a baked and seared finish, with a scatter of leek hay and a splash of bonito-infused ponzu sauce. And they pulled some culinary magic tricks, like getting fried shiitakes to resemble bacon, which they layered over a first course of gelatinous jellyfish, and unripened feathers of avocado reimagined as truffles in a delicate soup of heirloom tomatoes, pine nuts and black truffle oil.

Not all the creativity and customs soared, some of which could be pegged to the traditions of the dining format. Shark cartilage was an exciting and unexpected start to one dinner, but the blast of salt overwhelmed. Tempura dishes showed creativity and a deft touch, with fried prickly pear giving a Southwestern flair to one dish while purslane pierced its bitterness through the delicate shell of another. But after 15 dishes, I could have done without tempura items or a silky, well-executed duck custard with mushrooms that weighted my trudge toward the finish line. But at least I wasn’t left complaining that I needed a burger two hours after dropping $300 on dinner.

While I could have done without the mushrooms in the custard, mushrooms conquered my skepticism in a dessert that followed a brilliant course of blackberries and blueberries in startling yuzu curd.

The mushroom dessert again displayed Okai’s playfulness. “Mushroom Mountain” sounds like something out of a children’s book. Chocolate capped firm hon-shimeji mushrooms circled a mound of tart goat milk frozen yogurt and tofu croutons, all dusted with freeze-dried soy sauce and bathed in a condensed soy milk that tasted like the last sips of sweet cereal milk. I wanted to tip the bowl and drink the last drops. Something tells me Okai would have approved. Or at least looked the other way.



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