Fish Out of Water {Kyōten}

Excellence Strikes Where it Pleases

Words by Ben Haguewood  Photos by Ashley Haguewood

Chef Otto Phan of Kyoten is obsessed with “cracks”—his term for minor imperfections in service, preparation, or presentation—that become visible, sometimes only to him, over many nights of service. “Sometimes it takes weeks to see a crack,” he notes, but as it slowly comes into focus, Phan takes measures to correct it, making minor adjustments in temperature, the order of the sushi served to customers—it could be anything—maybe imperceptible even to the diner, but each crack is carefully mended over time. 

That’s how one gets better. This sort of attention is what it takes to be the best, and Phan does not intend to settle for anything less. It’s this sort of focus that Phan is counting on to propel Kyoten, in terms of quality, beyond Austin where he’s chosen to make his stand.

Austin clearly has an affinity for sushi. It is omnipresent from grocery store spicy tuna rolls, to all-you-can-eat buffets, to higher-end sushi counters at Pan-Asian restaurants that have gained regional and occasionally national recognition. However, Kyoten is Austin’s first reservation-only, omakase-only (chef’s choice) style sushi restaurant. Tucked into the lower, street-level storefront of Mosaic Apartments in Mueller, it would not be successful relying on foot-traffic alone, but Kyoten’s reputation already has the limited seating reservations filling up. Chef Phan’s journey, which has now brought him full circle back to Austin, has in many ways just begun. “My life before sushi might as well have been five lifetimes ago,” he says. “My life is my profession now. Some people think it shouldn’t be that way. I disagree.”

Phan’s journey from his hometown of Houston to Austin has been an indirect one.  On its face, a Houston-born chef of Vietnamese descent, dedicating his career to sushi, does not make a lot of sense. Phan may not have the typical ancestry, but he has the pedigree. After stints at a couple of Austin’s top sushi restaurants, he spent time at New York’s Masa and the famed Nobu. While Phan learned sushi from some of the best in the world, he didn’t spend his free time in New York’s fine dining scene. Like the simple and elegant sushi he now serves, Phan learned plenty about hospitality and satisfaction from the simple, reliable integrity of a pork bun in Chinatown or a plate of pollo guisado from one of the city’s Dominican neighborhoods. “I admired their ability to create happiness,” he recalls.  In fact, Phan aims to leave a similar impression through flawlessness in his own service, though with much different (and better) ingredients.

The reviews are in, and it’s clear that Phan is doing something special, but he doesn’t take Austin diners for granted—omakase, after all, means trust. The menu is printed only in Japanese, and while frequent sushi diners may recognize some of the familiar fishes or pieces, many will be new, and Chef Phan likes it that way. “People have a lot of preconceptions about things they don’t like, but they haven’t had it here.” While Phan appreciates regulars like any restaurant Chef-Owner, ultimately he aims to dazzle each guest each visit, which in his case means small adjustments: fixing those tiny cracks, which add up over time, inching each service ever toward an extraordinary, unified experience. “If you come back in a week, I’ll have made some changes. Give me a month though, and I know it will be even better.”

Native Knowledge: On weekdays from 11am–2:30pm, Kyoten serves rolls and bowls only for their lunch menu.  Items run from $7-$22.

4600 Mueller Blvd., Ste.1035

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