Restaurant review: Sublime sushi and a surreal night at Kyoten Sushiko

Austin’s hottest new sushi restaurant is Kyoten Sushiko and it has everything: a quirky, obsessive chef; exceptional food; a server who does his dry cleaning in a bathtub; and all of the charm of an unfurnished model apartment.

Apologies to Bill Hader’s Stefon character from “Saturday Night Live,” but I kept slipping back into that absurd and lovable character’s voice when trying to explain the surreal experience of dining at chef Otto Phan’s omakase-style sushi restaurant.

The slight chef with a shaved head opened his tiny restaurant at the Mueller development at the end of June. Calling it a restaurant almost feels like a stretch. Situated on the ground floor of one of Mueller’s new mixed-use buildings, Kyoten more closely resembles a one-bedroom apartment that someone decided to turn into a restaurant at the last second.

What would be the living area serves as lunch seating (see inset box for details), the kitchen is, well, the kitchen, and the should-be bedroom acts as the dining room for a 20-course omakase-style (chef’s choice) dinner service that takes place two times a night, five nights a week.

With the exception of a small picture of Phan’s original East Sixth Street sushi trailer that served as his launchpad, the white walls are bare. Silence smothers the musicless room. The only architectural detail: a gorgeous, eight-seat ash wood counter designed by Wimberley artist Michael Wilson. I snuck a glance at the floor to see if there was still a drop-cloth to indicate the space was not finished, or some plastic lining that might alert us that we had wandered into a scene from “Dexter.”

But, as Phan, dressed in his pristine chef whites, entered the room, I thought of the first time I dined at a Michelin-rated kaiseki in Japan. On that trip I marveled at the cognitive dissonance produced by the dichotomy of the restaurant’s humble space and vaunted reputation. This was supposed to be one of the best restaurants in Japan? That same sensation repeated itself when my friend and I entered Kyoten: could this really live up to the high hopes I had established for it after swooning over Phan’s trailer for more than a year? Simply put: yes.

The space alarms with its austerity. And while I do think Phan will develop it over time, the severity and lack of distraction actually allow for the food to do all of the talking. Phan entered the dining room with a wooden box that held long, shimmering pieces of fish the size of a pork tenderloin. He handled it all with the pride and care of someone displaying family heirlooms or a collection of rare baseball cards.

The 20-course meal consists of 14 pieces of sushi, a great ratio, and Phan’s obsession over vinegar levels in his rice and the various curing processes of his fish led to one sublime, cylindrical bite after another. He cures the supple upper belly of Tasmanian trout in kombu (kelp), which draws out the water and intensifies the oceanic flavor of the shimmering coral fish.

Fragrant notes of lemongrass lifted from the yellow-green stripe running across the top of translucent shima aji (striped horse mackerel) that has been lightly cured and aged for two days. Phan serves each person in a clockwise rotation from his position behind the bar, and his delicate and precise touches heightened anticipation. He neatly scored the top of a ruby piece of akami (lean farm-raised bluefin tuna) that breathed only a whisper of iron after its salt and sugar cure.

Phan proceeded with workmanlike determination that belied the fact he is happy to chat with diners about his process and philosophy, but the responsibility of engagement lies with the diner. And, since you are likely to be sat in close proximity to strangers in the intimate space, the pleasure of your dining experience will only extend as far as your affability and your desire to have easily eavesdropped conversation. Kyoten is only as warm as you make it, which may feel like a burden to some diners.

Once you get Phan going, however, you are likely to hear him wax poetically about the marriage of fish and rice, the harmony and balance of ingredients and his relentless pursuit of perfection. After one dinner, I imagined that thinking about sushi must take up about 90 percent of the chef’s brain functioning.

A Houston native with a degree in petroleum engineering from the University of Texas, Phan gravitated toward the culinary arts while still in college. After stints at Imperia and Uchi in Austin, Phan worked briefly at the world-class Nobu and Bar Masa in New York City.

“Nobu taught me the great technical skills, but Masa taught me how to dream,” Phan said.

Masa also taught him something else: how to boil octopus in green tea to a marshmallow-like tenderness that he tops with an expressive olive relish. That bite came before the second round of sushi that included wild Japanese scallop cooked sous vide and dusted with yuzu koshu powder, oily aji (mackerel) enlivened with green onion and ginger, and ebi (shrimp) lacquered with an ebi miso.

Phan works with a trio of rice, all differentiated by their level of akazu, aged vinegar fermented from sake lees. He uses a lighter mixture for his more delicate fish, a medium mixture for cooked items and reserves the darkest for fatty items like toro (fatty farm-raised bluefin tuna) and Wagyu. Those two bites, which came in the menu’s final third, left some of the strongest impressions of the night. Phan roasts the toro’s sinew, collects the oil and then uses that to marinate the tuna, giving the fatty raw fish a cooked taste. The A5 Wagyu, the Babe Ruth rookie card of Phan’s collection, is dry-aged for 24 days to a funky finish that tastes like an invisible shmear of bleu cheese had been draped across the transcendent bite of beef.

Phan followed the beef with a braised hunk of madai (seabream) in a salty-tangy-spicy-sweet sauce that coaxed us to rest like dusk, then woke up and cleansed our palates with a twirled, rose-shaped cut of raw madai, before delivering a spoonfulled knock-out of uni cured in miso.

The meal, with flavors that heightened from light familiarity to sumptuous exclusiveness, concluded with the modesty of okayu, a bowl of sushi rice with bits and scraps that tasted like high-end leftovers. Phan joked that the dish mainly serves to make sure nobody goes home hungry. Fortunately, that wasn’t a problem for us. The 20 bites, which cost $150, satiated us without pushing us into discomfort. Yes, the pricetag is high, but it includes tax and gratuity, which makes it a fair value proposition.

The restaurant serves a handful of Japanese beers and sake, and offers a $20 corkage fee, but at $50, I recommend the sake pairing, with five selections that run from the crisp junmai daiginjo from Kubota to the rich umami of Yuho’s Eternal Embers. The four-ounce pours don’t come with a detailed description from the aforementioned server, a sweet kid with a wrinkled collar and professional but shy disposition, but somehow the service feels completely apiece with the surreal dining experience. No, Kyoten won’t pamper you like the fine-tuned service culture of Uchi, and it won’t dazzle you with the aesthetic and exclusivity of Otoko. But it should thrill you nonetheless. Like listening to someone play a Stradivarius in the subway.

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