Understanding KYŌTEN

To the uninitiated, Otto Phan is an enigma at best–and an arrogant blowhard at worst. As the story goes, he sauntered in from Austin some two years ago and threw down the gastronomic gauntlet: he would not only be the Second City’s first Michelin-starred sushi restaurant, but he would earn two of the coveted stars on his first go-round to boot.

By the time Kyōten, of which Phan is the chef/proprietor, opened in late August of 2018, Chicago had been experiencing something of an omakase renaissance. While sushi concepts like Juno, Naoki, Arami, Kai Zan, Katana, and Momotaro had succeeded over the years by offering some version of an omakase among a larger menu of crowd-pleasing options, the dedicated omakase restaurant–the proper, standalone “sushi bar” concept–had yet to take root. The failure of Masaharu Morimoto’s Japonais and Gene Kato’s Sumi Robata Bar–more traditional Japanese concepts from bonafide Japanese chefs–hardly showed that Chicagoans were hankering for increasingly luxurious expressions of Nippon.  

As is often the case in this town, Lettuce Entertain You led the way forward. The group opened Sushi-san at the tail end of 2017, bringing something akin to Momotaro’s Izakaya concept to the heart of River North. While the restaurant–which offers sake bombs, tempura, and matcha butter pancakes on its expansive Japanese menu–can hardly be called an “ode to omakase,” it did well to showcase the form. A small section of bar seats within the humming space was reserved for chef Kaze Chan’s “oma-KAZE,” a 14-course flight of nigiri that cost only $88. While surely not the most intimate or performative sushi experience in town, the quality-price ratio was impressive. Kaze did not shy away from building nigiri with some personality, and he did well to interact with guests and offer new items over repeated visits.

Despite Sushi-san’s role in laying the foundation for a more mature appreciation of sushi, Chicago’s omakase renaissance started in earnest during the summer of 2018. In July of that year, Omakase Yume opened in the West Loop, offering a 15-17 course menu for $125 (and, today, a 17-course menu for $150). Chef Sangtae Park worked for Mirai and Japonais as a sous chef before opening his own izakaya in suburban Niles. There, over a span of seven years, Park cultivated a loyal customer base that enabled him to offer, in addition to his à la carte menu, an omakase of edomae-style nigiri (that is, nigiri in which the raw fish is cured in some manner). The success of the suburban omakase inspired Park and his wife to move to Chicago and open Omakase Yume, which received one Michelin star in the city’s 2019 Guide. In July of 2020, nearly two years after Omakase Yume’s opening, Park opened TenGoku Aburiya in an adjacent space. There, he offers the izakaya fare he left behind in Niles, completing the circle of his bold (but undeniably successful) transplant.

Just as Sushi-san came on the heels of LEYE’s successful Ramen-san properties, Omakase Takeya–the third horseman of Chicago’s omakapocalypse–came into being in August of 2018 as an offshoot of Fulton Market’s Ramen Takeya. In fact, it is located in the latter’s basement: a seven-seat space likened to a “speakeasy” by co-owner Satoko Takeyama. Chef Hiromichi Sasaki–who is nearly 70 years-old–offers a 16 course menu of edomae-style sushi and small plates for $130. As far as you know, Sasaki is the only Japanese chef in Chicago actively making sushi for customers. The scope of his training–either in the United States or Japan–is unknown, but he is referred to as “one of Chicago’s veteran sushi chefs” who formerly helmed Wasabi (also owned by Takeyama).

Kyōten’s interior is centered around the sushi bar, which, in turn, is framed by the canvas behind it.

Kyōten opened a mere two days after Omakase Takeya, bursting onto a Chicago sushi scene that–in the blink of an eye–was starting to seem a bit crowded. But Phan, despite his rivals’ timing, was not following in anyone else’s footsteps. He had laid the groundwork for a move to the Midwest in May of 2018, yearning to enter a “Michelin-starred marketplace” in pursuit of becoming “the best sushi chef in the world.” Grand dreams for a chef out of Austin moving to the “big city,” but Phan is no phony: he worked at both Nobu and Masa in New York City. You would venture to say that Chicago has never housed a sushi chef of such pedigree. And you do not mean to insult the venerable, old masters who humbly ply their trade here.

Rather, Nobu and Masa both represent a generational benchmark for sushi in the United States. Today, they may not be “the best” in rigid, technical terms, but they have fought and earned a place in the American cultural consciousness. Not merely for themselves as “celebrity chefs,” but for sushi as a worthwhile luxury, a craft rooted in tradition yet still living, a cuisine with a new chapter to be written on this continent. Standing on Nobu and Masa’s shoulders, thus, means taking the craft of sushi beyond replication or importation of a foreign cuisine. It means applying a Japanese philosophy with eyes wide open to the unique American bounty. Surely, any chef can engage in such an act (with varying levels of respect and success), but how many have studied the American sushi canon with the craft’s forefathers? Such was the promise of Phan’s proclamation: aspiring to be the best while being intimately aware of the summit that was scaled before him. It’s the kind of intimate knowledge that transforms such an outrageous declaration–made seemingly of “hot air”–into the bellowing of the very brightest inner fire. Kyōten opened serving an omakase of around 20 edomae-style sushi bites for $220 and, since the pandemic, has launched private buy-outs for $500-$600 per person.

Whereas Phan is very much the “interloper” when it comes to Chicago’s sushi renaissance, Mako, the last omakase to join the party, stands as the hometown favorite. The restaurant, which you have written extensively about before, is the “passion project” of B.K. Park and the “culmination of his years of expertise seeking out and serving the most pristine fish in the world.” Born in South Korea, Park learned the craft of sushi upon moving to Chicago, where he worked as head chef of Tsunami and Mirai Sushi before opening Arami and, later, Juno as co-owner and chef. The latter, which opened in 2013 and still operates today, has long ranked among the city’s best. Juno has been titled both one of the “Hottest Japanese Restaurants across the US” and “21 Best Sushi Restaurants in America” by Eater. It also earned three stars from the Chicago Tribune’s Phil Vettel. There, with 48 hours notice, Park served an omakase featuring 16 items for $100-$150 per person. Such an omakase must have been unheard of in Chicago seven years ago, and it is no surprise–from his perch in Lincoln Park–that Park became the city’s premiere sushi chef.

Alas, Lincoln Park is no longer a relevant neighborhood for Chicago dining. It houses static concepts for a geriatric crowd that, like mothership Alinea itself (which, laughably, conscripted Park to advise the sushi preparation for their Next: Tokyo menu), has deluded itself into thinking their austere sense of taste still holds any relevance. Though you only ate at Juno once, it did little to distinguish itself from Momotaro (which opened one year later). Other than Park’s prodigious use of smoke-filled cloches, the restaurant felt only a step above strip mall sushi. Still, Park was likely the first to teach this city’s diners what such an omakase looked like. You do not fault him, in 2013, for nesting that menu within a more pedestrian concept. Rather, you wonder why it took the chef until March of 2019 to open Mako. Why, as the de facto sushi shogun of Chicago, would Park be the last–rather than the first–chef to elevate the dining scene with a dedicated omakase concept? And what, with so many more years of experience in this market, could he hope to offer that others haven’t? These questions are better addressed in your full review of Mako, which, it remains to be said, serves around 25 bites of food for $175.

Once the dust settled and the full breadth of restaurants encompassed by Chicago’s sushi renaissance hit their stride, some manner of ranking the establishments became clear. Phil Vettel, the Tribune’s restaurant critic, awarded four stars to Mako, three stars to Kyōten, two stars to Omakase Yume, and one star to Omakase Takeya. Just as B.K. Park, due to nothing more than longevity, has attained a reputation as the city’s premiere sushi chef, Vettel–a buoy (or, perhaps, an anchor) on the sinking ship of print journalism–has sleptwalked into the job of representing Chicago’s dining scene to the world.

Truth be told, he’s more of a pimp than a critic. Vettel feels comfortable awarding stars to restaurants after only a single visit–an ethical lapse that transforms his ostensibly “serious” journalism into something merely anecdotal. Rather than educate his readership on the art of cuisine, he is easily cowed by superficial aesthetics and, you think, altogether lacks the critical faculty required to judge food. For example, Vettel fails to note the quality or composition of Mako’s rice in his review (an absolute fundamental in any omakase) but praises “perfectly-grilled squab” as his “favorite dish.” The critic clearly holds a soft spot for “sushi artist” Park, whom he says “has been delighting Chicago palates for 20 years.” However, his review of Mako sidesteps any analysis of the quality of his friend’s sashimi and, shockingly, fails to mention nigiri at all. He spends more time describing “a tipped ceramic bowl with river rocks” than the texture of even one piece of fish!

Fish and rice: it’s what an omakase is “about.”

In some sense, Vettel must be said to be complicit in staging something of a farce: his review of Mako enables Park to play pretend at offering a middling “omakase” while the experience, ultimately, is only redeemed by cooked dishes crafted (at the time) by Tim Flores, former Oriole chef de cuisine now running Kasama, whom received no credit for his contribution. Can the Tribune critic really be called a custodian of Chicago’s restaurant scene when he so willingly misses the point? The focus of an omakase is fish and rice. Other dishes are welcome, but any review that fails to engage in an analysis of a sushi chef’s core skills is deeply flawed. Mako, by Vettel’s warped standards, would be better compared to Kikko or Yūgen than Yume or Kyōten. The former, like Mako, benefit from a full kitchen working behind the scenes whereas only the latter fulfill the element of the “one man show” that lends beauty and logic to the omakase form. It is absolutely insulting to compare the restaurants without acknowledging their structural differences. Perhaps it is asking too much for Vettel to consider such things. Perhaps he exists only as a food whisperer for aged urbanites who also just don’t know any better. But there is no question that Vettel, in writing shallow “criticism” for philistines, stunts the growth of the dining scene he (you think) aims to nurture.

Moving on from Chicago’s most estimable critic, Michelin’s 2019 Guide further complicates proceedings. While Vettel (on the basis of a single visit) asserted a ranking of Mako, Kyōten, then Yume, Michelin (whose methodology demands multiple visits) chose to award one star to both Mako and Yume, snubbing Kyōten. It was no oversight, as Michelin’s chief inspector confirmed: “B.K. and Sangtae [Park] have been in Chicago a long time,” they noted, while also admitting “we had meals that didn’t quite impress upon us that (Kyōten) was at the one-star level.”

Norwegian ocean trout nigiri has frequently marked the start of the meal.

Ouch. For an organization as secretive as Michelin, being singled out for failure to meet their standards is a perverse sort of honor. Clearly, Phan’s prognostication of not one, but two stars had piqued the inspectors’ interest–its brazenness demanded a response. In the end, the Austin transplant seemed to be all hat and no cattle. And, surely, some level of schadenfreude was indulged in by Chicagoans, who might have felt that the Second City was not simply ripe for conquest by out-of-towners slinging expensive raw fish. However, you would wager than any diner–local or alien–who visited Kyōten and compared it to the other omakases would feel an injustice had been done. Even Phil Vettel–as clueless as he is–had to acknowledge the quality of Phan’s food. Just what did Michelin take issue with? And how does a restaurant move forward after falling flat on its face?

You have visited Kyōten multiple times–starting only a couple weeks after its opening, proceeding through the release of the 2019 Michelin Guide, and continuing during the present pandemic. The restaurant, as well as Phan’s cooking, has transformed during that course of time. (Truth be told, this Texan might be the boldest and most dynamic chef in all of Chicago). As usual, you will condense the sum of your past experiences into one cohesive narrative, paying special attention to the elements of growth that would escape the attention of first-time patrons. You will also aim to contextualize Kyōten with regards to Chicago’s larger sushi renaissance, finishing a job that Phil Vettel regrettably fumbled in his own article. Then, with that all settled, let us begin:

You disembark your Uber at the corner of Armitage & Campbell, sandwiched somewhere between Margie’s Candies to the east and 90 Miles Cuban Café to the west. Table, Donkey and Stick does not lie far away–nor does Bungalow by Middle Brow–but, otherwise, this quiet stretch of restaurants in Logan Square’s “Palmer Square” pocket neighborhood hardly seems home to one of Chicago’s most expensive dining experience. (During the pandemic, with a private buy-out price tag of $500-$600 per person, Kyōten enters a rarefied list of the most expensive dinners in the entire country–think of that, our own little Time Warner Center amidst thrift stores and tattoo parlors!)

But you have long since learned that a restaurant’s setting is often inversely proportional to the quality of its food. Anyone who has been ensnared by a “tourist trap” knows that to be the case, yet it holds true for fine dining as well. The level of investment required to secure prime foot traffic–let alone anything approaching a “view”–often works to inhibit any full expression of the chef’s vision. And Kyōten, as will be revealed during the course of this review, eschews many of the trappings of the traditional “fine dining” meal in favor of offering a purer (dare you say postmodern?) omakase. Phan’s unflinching focus is on delivering flavor, and, as both proprietor and chef, he has marshalled his resources towards refining what goes on at the sushi bar itself.

The restaurant’s homemade signage–is it lazy or charming?

Thus, you are not disturbed to discover Kyōten has no signage, no awning, no valet or any praise from the “Hungry Hound” hanging on the window. You are no longer even bothered by the screeching of the nearby Blue Line (though the visible shudder it inspires simply cannot be helped). It’s all penance, you think, in deference to the decadence a chef like Phan promises each evening. Is Schwa (one of the sushi chef’s favorites since calling Chicago home) not much the same way? Or Willy Wonka’s factory for that matter? Only those who take the leap are privy to the riches which lay inside such an unassuming space. For, to be too concerned with the appearance of “luxury” is to admit a certain insecurity: that the customer might not comprehend the cuisine, and, rather than educate and advocate for an appreciation of one’s vision, it is safer for the chef to serve them a “photo op” instead.

That “photo op” begins with a slick webpage, a shiny social media presence, and a sleek façade in a fashionable part of town. It begins, that is, with “shock and awe.” Customers, through all the content they consume before the meal itself, are primed to be pleased. Few, if any, out of the scores of “special occasion” diners sure to rear their ugly heads over an establishment’s lifetime, possess palates capable of discerning anything more than “I like this” and “I don’t like this.” For this customer, the aim of fine dining is not art appreciation. Rather, it is all an exercise in self-pleasure and aggrandizement. The restaurant exists to dote, not to challenge, and they had better measure up to whatever twisted vision of a “good” [read: expensive] meal is rattling around their empty heads.

Chefs who cater to these customers inevitably clip their own wings, stifling free-flowing creativity–risk taking–in favor of crowd-pleasing, picture-worthy fare. They soon find that their job is less about exploring frontiers of flavor and texture than staging fancy “dinner parties” for well-heeled patrons who are more concerned with being seen at this or that place (which you can be sure of in the age of social media) than engaging the chef in his or her creative process. This is all to say, Kyōten is unassuming. It is more or less anonymous when viewed from the street and a good bit mysterious when researched online. Kyōten is Phan, and Phan is his own man. A lack of expression, or a prioritization of certain senses (like taste) over others (like touch or sight) in the experience, may communicate more than the most expensive design firm could ever dream of.

Amberjack “back” sashimi topped with freshly-grated wasabi.

Authenticity. You think that’s the word. Kyōten, from the outside, does not play to anyone’s expectations of what a $200, $300, $400, $500, or $600 meal “should” look and feel like. Kyōten simply is. It provoke, it demands, it dares that you raise or lower your expectations in line with your own biases, for it is more than confident in its power to charm you. Kyōten is a restaurant in that eternal sense. A “base,” a “point,” or a “position” (as your online translator would have you believe). “The edge of the sky,” if you take the restaurant’s word for it. It stands outside of trends and time, playing the only sort of game that is ever worth playing: Phan’s own.

In many ways, then, it makes sense for Kyōten to stand, inconspicuously, right where it does. It is “worth a stop,” “worth a detour,” and “worth a special journey.” It is too good to care about foot traffic, too confident to worry about its neighborhood or its neighbors (as estimable as some really are). Kyōten is a world unto its own, and it actually seems fitting that a liminal space just west of Bucktown’s ancestral goat prairies would become the home of Chicago’s own sushi “GOAT.”

You step through the door marked “2507,” and it closes with the jingle of bells. The vestibule is sparse (and it used to be even sparser) but altogether satisfactory. Opposite the door hangs a gilt-framed abstract painting. A couple chairs and a bench line the walls to either side of it. The rest of the room is empty, save for a few plaques (including Kyōten’s 2020 Jean Banchet Award for “Best New Restaurant”) and a floor-length curtain that covers the entrance into the sushi bar proper. The curtain is buttressed by a chair which holds a placard that warns against entering prematurely. You sit for a minute or two, time creeping just past the punctual reservation time, and start to wonder if your presence is known.

But the jingling bells never escape the staff’s attention. They are only working to dot their i’s and cross their t’s before the show begins. As it stands today, Kyōten serves bento boxes (for customer pickup) from 5 PM – 7 PM preceding the 7:30 PM buy-out of the restaurant for the remainder of the evening. Before the pandemic, Phan hosted two seatings each evening–at 6PM and 8:45 PM–with a similar thirty-minute gap in-between. That does not leave much time backstage for what, behind the bar, is essentially a one-man show. This is particularly salient, you think, because Phan operates with so little scripting. He’s never disengaged, never just “going through the motions,” and–whether having just built twenty bento boxes or served a full omakase before your arrival–always fresh as a daisy and focused.

So you savor those few extra moments of anticipation, confident that, when the curtain finally opens, the evening will flow effortlessly until you find yourself back on Armitage: ears ringing, palate sated, soul stirred. And open the curtain soon does. In steps Kyōten’s jill-of-all-trades: a hostess, captain, and sommelier all in one. She is the newest member of the restaurant’s team, which has grown from two to three (including Phan) over time. Jill greets you warmly, reads your temperature, and deposits a dollop of hand sanitizer on your waiting palm. She then disappears, just for a moment, back behind the curtain. Once the “all clear” is given (and the chair-cum-barrier removed), the curtain is held ajar and you are beckoned to enter the dining room.

The counter that runs behind Phan features his vinegars, cookbooks, and (once upon a time) a tower of sea urchin trays.

Upon making your way inside, it is impossible to ignore the sushi bar–that is, the heart and soul of the omakase experience. Kyōten’s is made from cypress and finished in a subdued, sandy color. Of course, it is smooth to the touch, but it is not ostentatious. It evokes the air of a workshop, of meticulous maintenance (and, thus, durability) rather than a dainty, contrived “luxury” lumber. Atop the bar, aligned with each seat, sit small slabs of blue stone streaked with gold. These accents enliven the wood tones and act as pads for the placement of each piece of sushi as it travels from Phan’s hands to your mouth.

The shorter, side-facing stretch of the sushi bar meets the longer, front-facing segment at the corner closest to the entrance. At that corner stands Phan–already in constant motion–his cutting board and his knives. Behind him hangs another painting matching that in the foyer. It is larger yet just as abstract, featuring a tangle of black billows with mesmerizing accents of rusted yellow and brown that bear a passing resemblance to the restaurant’s aged fish. The back counter beneath the painting holds a few knickknacks: a porcelain cat, a porcelain cow, a flower pot, and some plateware. The lighting is warm and centers the action on what goes on (and what “goes on” behind) the bar. Yet not to the extent that it quiets customer interaction. Tall curtains cover the windows facing Armitage Ave., ensuring a consistent mood throughout the meal.

Those seated at the shorter end of the sushi bar (usually up to two guests) look across all the action, making for a particularly alluring view when Phan slices fish. Those located on the longer side of the bar (typically six guests) undergo a bit more variation. The two closest to the corner have what you call “front row seats.” They are positioned to see, among other things, the formation of each bite of nigiri (that is, the bread and butter of the sushi master’s craft). They also, naturally, are face-to-face with Phan for most of the meal, a luxury that facilitates questions, exposition, and free-wheeling conversation on any number of topics. However, those further down the bar are never left out: they have an intimate view of some of the meal’s more eye-catching moments, like Phan’s use of a Searzall blowtorch. They also will be privy to any explanations or diatribes offered by the chef, and there is surely nothing stopping them from engaging him themselves.

Phan’s “real” California roll, a staple since his days running a sushi trailer in Austin.

Opposite the curtain from which you entered, at the far side of the room, is a hallway that leads to two gendered bathrooms. Adjacent to the hallway–and still in the dining room itself–a service station holds glassware and fridges for beverage service. The station also serves as a natural divider in the corner of the room, allowing Jill to observe what any given diner might require without any obtrusiveness. Across the face of the hallway–and somewhat parallel to the service station–is the curtained entrance to the kitchen. Phan, from behind his bar, has his own curtain leading back into the space. Inside, his jack-of-all-trades manages tasks like retrieving tools or ingredients. Jack’s own culinary bonafides are well-established, but he’s not quite an apprentice. Rather, he’s a “fixer,” an extension of Phan’s own hand that helps ensure he can put on the omakase, uninterrupted, without worrying about setting in motion some of the menial (but essential) elements.

The Philadelphia roll (featuring salmon, cream cheese, and avocado): is it sushi sacrilege?

Lastly, on the wall adjacent to the dining room’s entrance, there hang coat hooks and two consequential photographs. The first, which has stood since Kyōten’s opening, depicts the original Kyōten: a food trailer that Phan opened six years ago in Austin. That humble location led to a brick-and-mortar restaurant that opened in 2016 titled “Kyōten Sushiko.” And it is that establishment that is memorialized in the other picture hanging from the wall: a depiction of Phan’s apprentice, Sarah Cook, who now crafts her own omakase there back in Texas. That Phan could trust someone to carry the torch down south without him speaks volumes. It asserts the existence of a certain “Kyōten style” of sushi that transcends what the head honcho himself is making on any given night. It also speaks to Phan’s personality: that behind the big mouth stands a more humble, patient mentor. Both photos, though easy to miss, do much to imbue the restaurant’s minimalist design with an undercurrent of soul.

After placing your bag on the coat hook adjacent to the curtain, you take your seat face to face with Phan. He greets you cheerily then continues to go about his work. For, even though the guests are seated, the moments immediately preceding the start of the meal entail a flurry of finishing touches. These motions–which may include slicing and curing fish or simply arranging the mise en place–strike you as seeming much like a general marshalling their forces in preparation for battle. It might be the only period during the course of the dinner that guests can get a peek at just how hard Phan pushes himself. (For it is a bit hard to get the chef’s attention–and solicit his characteristically acerbic wit–as he flies through his mental checklist). But there is plenty else to keep you occupied during those final, pregnant moments.

For example, Kyōten’s beverage list–a leather-bound tome that replaced what was once a two-sided piece of paper–leans alluringly against the wall of the sushi bar before you. While super-luxe omakases like Masa place rather obnoxious markups on wine and sake (bleeding dry those “once in a lifetime” customers who dare not spoil the special occasion with subpar libations), Phan has wisely resisted turning his restaurant into a haven for label whores. Whereas Mako and Omakase Yume, for example, sell sakes at the $150, $200,  $300, and even $400+ level, Kyōten’s list is more focused on bottles less than $100 (with only one or two that exceed the amount). Each features a short description–“highly refined, supple, and clean” or “strong round tones, lively, and expansive”–to gently guide customers, something sorely missing at the other establishments (though, you think, Yume has since attempted the same). You say that as someone who enjoys high-end sake too, merely recognizing that American consumers are not prepared to pay a two or three times mark-up on a beverage they cannot properly conceive of. Nonetheless, they might take the plunge to impress a date or cap off what they expect to be “that one time they tried raw fish.”

Beautifully scored sardine nigiri.

The same idea, generally, holds true for wine. At Mako and Yume, the vinous offerings are recent vintage and fairly anonymous: a $100 champagne; lone bottles of Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Riesling in the $60-$90 range; and a couple token red wines around the same price. You would term such a selection “representative” but not “interesting.” The wines are, in a sense, anonymous. They tread softly. They are there to secure the lucre of those customers avoiding sake, and the wines just don’t have much to say otherwise. Fair enough, you cannot expect every establishment to curate and eye-catching wine selection (though, in truth, you believe fervently that sushi offers the most sublime pairing opportunities of nearly any cuisine). At Mako and Yume, the wine is merely an option to ensure no money is left “on the table.”

Kyōten, instead, offers wine much in the way it does sake. Not in the sense of any convenient descriptors (which, with wine, strikes you as more patronizing), but rather in the sense that the assembled options are approachable and fair. Champagne, Cava, Riesling, and a token (though, in terms of tannin, well selected) red wine range in price from $50-$70. While Mako offers a beverage pairing for $85, Kyōten’s lands just shy of that at $76. When it comes to corkage, Mako, Yume, and Kyōten each charge $40 per bottle. It’s not an insignificant amount, but it meets the industry standard in ensuring serious wine drinkers can bring what they like while dissuading cheapskates who would deny a restaurant their margin on alcohol.

What ultimately distinguishes Kyōten’s beverage offerings from the other omakases is a matter, you think, of philosophy. Mako and Yume are run more institutionally, with a dividing line between the “action” of the sushi chef and the hospitality offered on the other side of the bar. Chicagoans enter the respective spaces unsure of what to expect, they are handed a beverage list with a range of sakes they cannot begin to comprehends, and it is all too easy to be steered towards something expensive (“special occasion”), something easy (“the pairing”), or, more conservatively, towards the one grape they recognize (“that will be $100 please”). In any case, the restaurant wins a bit of breathing room to subsidize the cost of the overall “experience.”

At Kyōten, the beverage selection is a natural extension of Phan’s indomitable personality. He has tasted everything he serves and offers the bottles to the guest as an extension of his hospitality as chef and proprietor. The most expensive item sold on the list, a $220 Daiginjo Genshu sake, is labelled as “chef’s favorite sake.” This pricing is not only a far cry from the eye-popping $360 and $490 bottles offered at Mako and Yume respectively (without a word of reasoning as to why such sakes are desirable), but Kyōten actually connects its most coveted item to the chef’s personal taste. Ordering such a bottle offers an easy means of connecting with Phan, but he would be just as happy selling you a $70 bottle, a $14 glass of wine, or a $2 Topo Chico. Kyōten’s beverage selection, thus, is not simply one further method of squeezing the guest on top of the price of the omakase. It, in good faith, looks to accentuate the food and make diners feel at ease. For the food, ultimately, and not the “experience” or the “occasion” or even Phan himself, is the star of Kyōten. Fine beverages are an accessory, a pleasant companion, not a necessity. And, don’t forget, Jiro himself drinks hot tea with his sushi!

With your beverage order settled, the last details fall into place. Jane places a hot towel before you, which you use to wipe face and hands. The dirty towel is absconded, and a fresh one is deposited on the same tray. It will sit in front of you for the rest of the meal, offering a means to wipe the tips of your fingers after picking up each piece of nigiri. A small, shallow bowl also sits before you and is used as a vessel for a mound of thinly-sliced ginger that has been pickled by Phan. Though the nature of the ginger’s brine varies with each sushi chef, Kyōten’s rendition balances zesty, tart, and sour flavors with only the slightest element of “crunch.” It is tasty enough to snack on (and generously replenished by Jane as needed) but subtle enough so as never to interfere with the delicacy of the sushi. In that sense, the ginger serves its purpose perfectly as a palate cleanser between bites. It may be the very best in Chicago, where you often encounter variants that are too crunchy, too pungent, or too subdued.

Kyōten’s chopstick holders add a touch of whimsy to a meal that might seem intimidating at first blush.

The last touch before the start of the meal makes for a nice bit of customization. Jane moves from guest to guest with a small platter filled with multicolored chopstick holders to choose from. Kyōten, surely, is not the first restaurant to embrace this form of personalization; however, the range of playful animals and anthropomorphic comestibles bandied about can only be called charming. They, like the manner of hospitality offered at the restaurant in general, seem to say: an omakase need not seem stuffy, a high price point need not be indicative of a “serious” meal. The flavors may be serious, yes, but nature does not demand you prostrate yourself to reap the fruits of her bounty. One can smile, laugh, and–dare you say–dress and act comfortably when indulging in fine cuisine. And the chopstick holders, by their mere presence, evoke such ruminations without beating you over the head with any sense of conscious quirkiness. They make clear that excellence and self-expression–even whimsy–walk hand in hand. It’s a tightrope walk that must never feel contrived, and, when it comes off as it does here, it smacks of an authenticity that lies at the core of any great experience.

Finally, with a flash, comes the call: “rice!” Once it arrives, the skirmish begins, and you will command Phan’s undivided attention until he leaves you–hours later–happy and full. Describing the cuisine at Kyōten in any overarching way is a daunting task. As with any sushi of this caliber, describing your pleasure involves an intricate analysis of “texture,” “umami,” and–ultimately–“balance.” One must consider the freshness and quality of the fish, if and how it has been treated (that is, aged, cured, or marinated in the edomae style), how it is sliced, whether it is served as sashimi or nigiri, and how rice, wasabi, soy sauce, or any other ingredients work to build a cohesive bite of food that accentuates a given fish’s distinct qualities.

Most diners interested in Kyōten’s omakase have read or heard about inochi-no-ichi, a particular grain of rice that measures one and a half times the size of typical sushi rice. Phan is the first and only restaurant in the country to import and use this strain (which, he’ll admit, is also used by a three Michelin star omakase in Japan). He typically seasons the rice with “the intense taste of aged red vinegar” but substitutes a darker blend to pair with richer fish during the later portion of the meal. The goal, in Phan’s words, is “unity and togetherness between fish and rice…. The two should be like lovers with a sense of deep belonging to each other.” It is easy to chortle at such sensuously-described grains, but you must admit that Kyōten’s rice is a real distinguishing factor.

At Yume and at Mako (especially), the clumps of rice that hold the nigiri together border on being lifeless. They act as platforms for the cut fish–points of contrast–rather than bonafide partners. There is no doubt that standard-sized sushi rice can yield top-tier nigiri; however, neither Park [of Yume] nor Park [of Mako] possess the requisite technical skill. The focus at both their establishments is more decidedly on the fish and the creative ways they choose to dress it–that is to say, they choose the “style” of novelty flavor combinations over the “substance” of superbly seasoned and formed rice. (You think it is odd for Michelin to reward the former while spurning the latter but can only assume that the Chicago inspectors figure the majority of guests in this city, trying an omakase for the first time, prefer “easy” pleasure).

While Sukiyabashi Jiro, for example, uses standard size sushi rice (albeit, sourced from a special dealer), it is assertively flavored with vinegar, expertly shaped, and placed opposite fish of the utmost quality. Much of the beauty of the omakase format–and a theme that rings clearly throughout Jiro Dreams of Sushi­–comes from an appreciation of mastery. The traditional elements at play–fish, rice, vinegar, soy, wasabi–are deceivingly simple but demand a lifetime of work to refine them into their most superlative form. It seems to you, then, that Yume and Mako have chosen to embrace gimmicks like potato chips, jellies, and smoke effects in lieu of study and technical mastery. Surely, Chicago certainly isn’t a city that demands stilted, static, “traditional” omakases (NYC is overflowing with those, for better or worse). However, critics should not heap praise on bastardized, caricaturized expressions of the omakase form that deny its most essential and rewarding elements. What you call “gimmicks” are certainly allowed, but they must be built on the traditional foundations. Otherwise, they add up to a mere distraction from the chef’s lack of skill, and one is left to question what really distinguishes Yume and Mako from Sushi-San’s omakase other than price point and setting.

At the start of the meal, Phan seasons and blends his rice before the guests.

This is all to say: Kyōten’s use of inochi-no-ichi makes for remarkable sushi–not just in Chicago, but at a national and international level. One could claim that choosing an atypical rice is “gimmicky” in its own way, yet Phan has clearly done so in pursuit of his own sense of “balance,” his own distinct style that breaks with tradition thoughtfully. For the American and Chicagoan palate, the larger grain size (which the chef sometimes compares to risotto) makes for a fuller, more enveloping mouthfeel. It enables Phan to form larger slices of fish into his nigiri, which, in turn, means customers are more powerfully struck by each bite’s distinct flavor and texture. The rice brings a pronounced vinegar flavor to the table (one of the easiest tweaks to rice preparation that few sushi chefs indulge in), but, more tellingly, each piece of nigiri arrives from Phan’s hand as if it were about to break apart. This is what really distinguishes the “men” from the “boys” in Chicago’s sushi scene.

While other establishments embrace an “assembly line” model of sushi making in which the chef makes and serves several bites of nigiri to several guests, Kyōten’s model is unmistakably artisanal. Phan makes one bite and hands it to one guest to be eaten as soon as possible. Rinse and repeat. This level of craftsmanship allows the inochi-no-ichi to really strut its stuff: it reaches your mouth ready to collapse into a warm mound of soft rice that yields expertly to whatever fish sits atop it. Such is the peak sushi experience, a transfer of impeccable texture and flavor from the chef’s hands to your mouth. This direct form of service begs the format of the “sushi bar,” and you would not hesitate to argue that any omakase that refuses to shape the rice for each individual bite given to each individual customer is engaged in something close to a scam. Thus, the reality regarding the rice being offered at Chicago omakases becomes clear: Phan invests in excellent rice because he engineers each bite for each customer to be optimal, and his format allows for the quick delivery of the most intricate kind of rice texture. Other establishments lean into offering gimmicky flavor combinations and toppings because they choose to mass-produce their sushi and are forced to use gummy clumps of rice that can stand an extended wait time before being served. No manner of novelty, in your opinion, can ever surpass a devotion to perfecting the fundamentals. Phan’s use of inochi-no-ichi proves why.

When it comes to analyzing the quality of Kyōten’s fish relative to other restaurants in Chicago, the story is much the same. Phan works with a monger at Fukuoka’s Nagahama Fish Market, a venue with less name recognition than Tokyo’s Tsukiji (now Toyosu) Market but, nonetheless, awash with excellent finfish and seafood like mackerel, sardine, yellowtail, and tuna. The monger is entrusted with unilateral power to purchase what he sees as the best of the catch–a duty that often demands bidding against other restaurants at auction for the most precious ingredients. Phan receives the fruits of his labor once a week and shapes the menu around this selection. In this manner, every bite served at Kyōten is built on the back of a local Japanese artisan, a man of the sea, who exercises his own expertise in service both of nature and the guest. It is up to the monger to choose the best of the aquatic bounty before him, enabling Phan to apply his range of edomae techniques towards creating the optimal expression of each fish.

Hokkaido uni (sea urchin).

Such a division of labor moves beyond shallow descriptors like “fresh” or “from the source.” Rather, it connects the raw materials which go into Phan’s omakase–a form that offers a pure expression of his talents as a chef–to another individual, equally as passionate, expressing their own life’s work discerning what “seasonal,” in its most transcendent form, represents. Kyōten doesn’t just have a “fish guy,” but a “meat guy,” an “uni guy,” and a dedicated “tuna guy” too. Certain ingredients, like black and white truffles or king crab from Korea, come by way of larger purveyors. Phan is open to any and all sources in his quest to serve the very best. However, it is best to view Kyōten’s omakase as a tapestry woven by a range of skilled people with a deep reverence for nature. These connections, which grow richer and more rewarding over time, yield a quality that cannot merely be bought. These artisans connect the natural to the human, and they assert the sushi chef’s unique role–through his or her place in a chain of “true believers”–as a custodian of the sea.

Glancing at Phan’s social media posts throughout the week, it becomes clear that he does not serve “fish” in any anonymous, idealized form. He is serving this fish that came in this week and that possesses certain qualities (like size or fattiness) that deserve a unique appraisal and preparation. This, you think, must be much of the beauty of being a sushi chef: eyeing your product as a painter does a canvas, conscious of your power to pick out the best piece of the best portion and prepare it the perfect way. The beauty of the omakase form–being imbued with customer trust–enables this process. From ocean, to market, to the chef’s hands, and to your mouth: an undiluted expression of nature at this moment in time. A moment that cannot, must not ever be the same.

As you discussed in your review of Mako, Park’s restaurant does little to change their menu. They claim to serve a “seasonal selection of sashimi” and several “seasonal selection[s] of nigiri” but allow the finer details to go lost among distracting interludes of cooked fare. Yume claims that the “omakase changes daily based on the chef,” but, from what you remember, the restaurant sticks to a core range of traditional fish a couple interesting seasonal selections thrown in. This makes sense, given the meal is dedicated far more to nigiri than Mako is. Abstaining from using cooked food as a crutch means that Park (of Yume) is better served by “checking all the boxes” a sushi aficionado might expect.

Such a decision ensures both full stomachs and the widest range of reference points to compare different pieces of fish and seafood. However, it inevitably demands serving product that, while good, is not at its absolute peak of season. Quality (at the very highest level) takes a backseat to representativeness, but the comprehensive nature of the menu has made Yume a respectable stepping stone towards higher sushi appreciation. Additionally, while Yume’s à la carte menu allows guests to try nigiri otherwise not included in the omakase, these pieces often lack a bit of artistry. Their cost, too, sends the (comparably) affordable menu price careening closer to Kyōten’s level and begs–given the cost of beverage and poor quality of the rice–a more critical appraisal of Yume’s overall value.

Phan approaches his menus with none of the preconceived cooked dishes of Mako or nigiri benchmarks of Yume. In truth, he often does not finalize the menu in his head at all. Rather, the chef considers the product sent that week from his mongers, the product he has been aging or curing for periods of time (ranging from days to weeks), and the produce–sourced both near and far–that might add a seasonal accent. Of course, there’s the rice, the vinegar, the soy sauce, and wasabi: familiar bedfellows who always have a role to play. However, Phan’s process is particularly intuitive. He is driven by maximizing the flavor of the ingredients on hand rather than retrofitting them to what customers consider a “proper” or “traditional” omakase form. This is not to say that Phan turns his nose up at tradition (for, in truth, his experiences at the absolute pinnacle of the American sushi craft ensure nobody in this city knows it better). Rather, in a way indicative of true mastery, he understands and adapts the essential philosophy of omakase rather than get caught in the weeds of its rigidity. That is to say, at Kyōten, omakase means a chef’s celebration of the purity and splendor of fish and seafood. It means structuring dishes with a general flow from “light” to “heavy” flavors. It means drawing on “traditional” technique and combinations when they get the job done best, and its means not being afraid to transform tradition–to move the craft forward–by thoughtfully incorporating the range of influences only now possible in this time and place.

A small plate of seared tuna in rhubarb sauce.

While Yume deserves respect for its dedication to nigiri and nothing but nigiri, Phan is not afraid to look beyond the “fish on rice” form. He incorporates small plate into the flow of the meal–no, not fully-composed dishes of arctic char and duck breast as seen at Mako. Rather, Kyōten’s small plates are very much the equivalent of a bite of nigiri or a few pieces of sashimi. They seem to say, “this fish could express itself better if taken beyond the traditional limitations of the craft.” Sea bream, for example, is paired with pickled watermelon. Thick chunks of tuna are glazed with a sauce made from rhubarb. Santa Barbara spot prawn is placed opposite an arugula salad (dressed with prawn “brain sauce”). And fatty pieces of snapper, flounder, and pompano all, in turn, have been served on a bed of saffron rice in lieu of the usual nigiri preparation.

On the surface, such dishes strike one as unrelated to “sushi” as it is conceived in the popular imagination. In truth, they merely choose to take a different route in pursuit of the same ultimate goal: that is, transcendent flavor. These small plates do not surge forth from some cloistered back kitchen (à la Mako), but they are constructed by Phan with the same care he devotes towards the shaping of rice and seaweed. Thus, you get the pleasure of observing the chef engage in all manner of techniques and manipulations throughout the course of the meal. It transforms the “one man show” of the stoic sushi chef into something more reminiscent of Carrot Top (in the sense of an eclectic blend of evocative tools). The perfection of the craft takes precedence, and the craft itself, it should be asserted, is concerned more closely with respecting ingredients (helping them fulfill their latent potential) and pleasing customers than walking a tightrope that demands the chef only draw on a paltry selection of ingredients.

Uni paired with ikura (salmon roe).

All this being said, you feel comfortable describing a meal at Kyōten as “sushi-focused,” featuring a variety of fish that take the form of nigiri or maki (a roll with seaweed on the outside). As decided by the chef, certain fish will feature in small plates (either dressed or accompanied by a couple pristine complements) sliced raw as sashimi or simply cooked via searing, boiling, frying, or sous-vide. In this way, it is best to think of the small plates as actually offering guests a purer expression of the given ingredients than the traditional forms would allow. They are conceptual tools that help the meal escape a sense of monotony without clashing with the chef’s mission to offer the “best of the best” ingredients served in the best possible way. This full range of preparations and presentations is brought forth to meet a given week’s product. And each of those distinct pieces–fresh fish, cured fish, fresh produce, the nigiri form, the maki form, the small plate form (with various means of manipulation)–fit into place differently on any given day.

To escape some of this abstraction, you think it would be good to highlight some of Phan’s specific dishes. However, the hyper-seasonal nature of the restaurant complicates such a task. (All but Kyōten’s most signature dishes are unlikely to reappear in exactly the same form again). The best route, you think, is to elucidate how different preparations over the course of distinct visits work to achieve the same goals and build an experience that, ultimately, pleases guests with the same net force. Such an exposition offers a testament to Phan’s creativity and will be of more service to first time guests who might like to know where their experience fits into the larger Kyōten canon.

Wild yellowtail nigiri.

Typically, the meal starts with a flurry of nigiri. Norwegian ocean trout leads the line, along with salmon, yellowtail, and striped jack (also known as shima-aji). Tuna makes its first appearance among the nigiri not long after. It has taken the form of “bluefin tuna,” “bigeye tuna,” “pacific tuna,” “striped skipjack tuna” (with ramp paste), and “lean tuna” either marinated in soy or cured and smoke. All the many variations of this most quintessential sushi fish have regaled you with their depth and intensity of flavor. These, Phan’s leanest, “entry-level” expressions of tuna, surpass many of the fattier pieces put out by Chicago’s other chefs. At this point, it quickly becomes apparent that Kyōten’s larger grains of rice–so loosely packed together–and correspondingly larger slices of fish simply deliver more pleasure.

Lean tuna that has been cured and smoked.

Following the tuna, comes mackerel: either “horse mackerel” (known as aji) or “Spanish mackerel,” which Phan has aged for up to two weeks before. Hearing that the fish has been treated in such a way never fails to make you salivate. Such extensive aging is even something of a rarity in Japan (where Koji Kimura, at his two Michelin star restaurant in Futako-Tamagawa, has earned an incomparable status as the “father of aged sushi”). These pieces, when they appear at Kyōten provide a peek into the future of the craft. Like dry-aging steak–something Chicagoans certainly have plenty of experience with–the process of aging fish entails controlling its degradation. Outer layers rot and are cut away, yielding a final product of reduced weight but concentrated flavor. Those flavors, it should be said, are not pungent or sharp so much as layered, resonant umami. The process also leaves the fish with an altogether unique mouthfeel that treads the line between structure and softness. Phan deserves special credit for experimenting with his product in such a way.

Kohada (gizzard shad) nigiri, one of the most traditional pieces seen in edomae sushi.

After the mackerel, appears gizzard shad (known as kohada), a fish prized for its silvery scales. Historically, as Phan recounts to guests, Tokyo sushi chefs would be judged on the quality of their kohada alone. Customers would saunter up to the bar and ask to try a piece before deciding whether to stay or go. Needless to say, Kyōten’s makes the grade, offering a more intensely “fishy” flavor than other pieces that is still well balanced thanks to the vinegar content of the rice. The bit of sushi history, too, makes for an engaging anecdote no matter a guest’s prior experience with the craft. Sardine and blood clam round out the opening salvo of nigiri, which closes with a couple of the chef’s signature offerings.

Alabama “ruby red” shrimp possess an unparalleled sweetness and smoothness that is sure to please Chicago diners.

One of these is wild caught Ruby Red shrimp sourced from Alabama. An absolute fixture on the menu (when in season), these crustaceans possess a plump, sweet, and buttery profile that puts many preparations of crab and lobster to shame. Phan does not hesitate to term them the “best shrimp in the world,” a moniker that not only speaks to the chef’s promotion of native foodways but, without fail, makes believers out of guests. Uni, most often sourced from Hokkaido, also makes its appearance during this portion of the meal. The chef is honest about the varying quality and flavor of sea urchin from tray to tray, and he has maintained an endless hunt since opening to secure the very best (evidence of which could once be seen by the tall stacks of empty trays with all manner of labels that laid on the counter behind him). The uni is classically served on a mound of rice wrapped in a layer of seaweed, a preparation that accentuates both the texture of the roe and its pristine flavors of the sea. More recent renditions combine the fresh uni with brined uni (also from Japan), making for a one-two punch of flavor that surpasses any other sea urchin served in Chicago.

Tilefish topped with golden osetra caviar. Note the crisped, flaky scales directly below the roe.

Next comes the showstopper, the “mic drop” as the chef himself calls it. It’s not quite a piece of nigiri–there’s no rice–but Phan still hands it piece by piece to each guest. The bite comprises a succulent morsel of tilefish that has been cooked to flaky perfection and fried so that its skin crackles crisply. That same skin provides the perfect vessel for a generous dollop of golden osetra caviar, which sits atop the tilefish along with a dab of horseradish crème fraiche. Though pleasantly shocking when it first appears before you, the bite has been carefully conceived: the fish skin, osetra, and crème fraiche make for the ultimate riff on the “caviar-potato chip” combination while the warm, buttery texture of the rest of the fish makes for a temperature contrast that amplifies the dish’s richness. In some sense, the piece offers two caviar courses in one–two that become one as the sturgeon roe mingles together with the fish juices, flesh, and remaining shards of skin in your mouth by the second or third bite. As of late, Phan has put the tilefish at the very beginning of the meal as a sort of challenge to himself. (The logic being that guests will struggle to see how the chef, during the course of the meal to come, could ever top something so straightforwardly delicious). No worries there! The bite is decadent and delicate and a perfect introduction to Phan’s culinary style, which only grows in stature as one sees him wrangle even bigger flavors together.

This point in the omakase usually marks the transition into the small plates that precede the final torrent of nigiri. It allows the guest, you think, to acknowledge Phan’s mastery of the more traditional sushi form before indulging the chef more fully in his own creations. You have already mentioned the sea bream (with pickled watermelon) and tuna (with rhubarb sauce) sashimi. But how about king crab? Kyōten’s comes from Norway and has typically been served over rice with a sauce of its roe or its brains, lending a concentration of crab flavor and fat not unlike a crustacean brown butter. However, Phan did not stop there. Last fall, he began introducing Midwestern sweet corn into the mix, drawing out the product’s latent sweetness like a deconstructed chowder. This dish reached its absolute pinnacle this fall, combining fresh (not flash frozen, but actually arriving live) Korean king crab with warm corn kernels and a smooth, sweet corn sorbet.

Korean king crab, corn kernels, and corn sorbet have formed one of the recent fixtures on Kyōten’s menu.

As with the tilefish, Phan cooks in four dimensions, combining sweet/savory, hot/cold, and crunchy/smooth to deliver a bite that–when all is said and done–transcends the constituent parts. The sum experience is something like a hypothetical crab and corn pudding–or perhaps it’s a savory sundae? Whatever the label, the dish leaves little question as to what the small plate form offers that sushi does not. It combines ingredients at their freshest using as little manipulation as possible, and it achieves a superb balance of flavors while forging a deeper, purer expression of the pleasure each part gives. The sushi chef “philosophy” is certainly at work here. Phan simply sees no need to hide his genius under the trappings of Japanese tradition (trappings, mind you, which may appeal to the superficial diner but would altogether stifle a chef with so much more to say).

Though Phan prepares his octopus is several styles, this avocado-based sauce has proven to be his signature.

Yet another of Kyōten’s small plates is prepared even more simply, and it has become the sort of signature preparation that might even begin to rival Phan’s tilefish “mic drop.” Fresh Japanese octopus is given a lengthy massage and briefly boiled. Small chunks of the tendrils are then sliced and coated in a sauce of olive oil and avocado. The resulting plate looks deceptively simple, but it strikes you (and many guests) as the most tender, strikingly unctuous octopus they have ever tasted. Phan has played with the preparation from time to time, including parts of the octopus head or pairing the pieces of tentacle with a preparation of bite-sized firefly squid. He has also tinkered with the sauce, serving the octopus once with red chili and another time with ponzu aioli. But nothing can beat the mouthfeel lent by the avocado, and the dish has earned its familiar place on the menu.

The rectangular “pressed sushi” roll made from beltfish.

Other small plates served during this segment of the meal are more austerely Japanese. They have included sous-vide spiny lobster in a monkfish liver sauce, abalone coated in abalone liver, scallop served with jellyfish, skipjack tuna with pureed daikon and ponzu, and beltfish dressed with miso-foie gras sauce. That same beltfish, after it is served as sashimi, is used by Phan to make a bite of oshizushi, a style of “pressed sushi” made by placing the fish and rice into a plastic mold and compacting them. You must say, it is one of the wackier techniques that you have seen displayed at Kyōten. Yet it is enjoyable to watch and yields an end product that is both aesthetically and texturally pleasing.

A small plate of cooked snapper topped with a sauce of beurre blanc and caviar.

Marking the transition back towards nigiri, Phan’s small plates delve into preparations of cooked fish. However, it should be noted that the majority of the “action” still occurs in the guests’ line of sight. At most, the chef will disappear behind the curtain for just a moment to retrieve something from the hot kitchen. However, the performance is a far cry from the mysterious goings-on in Mako’s back-of-house. Also, compared to Mako’s cooked arctic char (and now halibut) dishes, Kyōten’s cooked fish is far less fussy. It, like every bite, fits firmly into Phan’s larger sushi philosophy. That is to say, the chef judges that certain prized pieces of fish like amberjack collar and tuna rib would benefit from being cooked. They are not pieces that have been brought in particularly to throw omakase amateurs a “bone,” but part of a larger, delicious dissection and dissemination of every part of a particular fish throughout the lifecycle of the restaurant. It is no surprise then that the amberjack collar and tuna rib can be simply grilled, then glazed, and served without further adornment. In terms of elegance and intensity of flavor, only the shima aji ribs served at Smyth can compare.

A different preparation of snapper featuring grated black truffle and saffron rice.

When these cooked fish dishes demand a bit more heft, Phan draws on a special batch of his inochi-no-ichi rice cooked with saffron. The more robust preparation has played a part in two variants of a fatty snapper dish–one with black truffle and the other with “clam parts” and wine sauce. The saffron rice has also partnered sharkskin flounder (both the side and the fillet) as well as pompano. In each case, the rice provides much of the same pleasurable mouthfeel to go along with these fattier fish while the saffron works well to cut through the richness. Once again, these dishes demonstrate how Phan is able to color outside the lines of “tradition” while still ultimately realizing a philosophy that puts the purity of fish flavor first.

But that is not to say these small plates signal the end of the “traditional” omakase–they were but an intermission. The chef bellows “dark rice!” and, just moments later, Jack hands over a steaming bowl of inochi-no-ichi from behind the kitchen curtain. This batch, as is customary in Japan’s finest restaurants, is treated with a darker blend of vinegars to balance the richer bites of nigiri to come. Such a move is not simply a testament to the important role rice plays at Kyōten, but it seems to underline the schism between nigiri sequences. By the logic of the meal, there are lighter fish to be served opposite the more lightly-vinegared rice, medium-intensity fish and seafood that benefit from the blank canvas of the small plate, and decadent, fatty fish that shine brightest against rice texturally but demand it possess a more complementary flavor profile. From this vantage point, “Phan the craftsman” comes into full view: he’s a man among his fish and his tools, building the menu “brick by brick” based on an intuitive understanding of what should fit where. It is this sense of structure and harmony that strikes at the very core of what an omakase should embody. To wit, an omakase is not an invitation to applaud mimicry, but rather an occasion of submission. “Tradition” itself makes no demands of the chef; it is only customer expectations that can clip his wings.

Chu-toro (medium fatty tuna).

Yet, free as he is in this format, Phan knows when to shut up and simply make great sushi. The latter section of nigiri includes a laundry list of the sushi world’s most coveted pieces, along with some curveballs. Wild yellowtail (called buri) is sure to appear–sometimes as a special belly cut, other times with weeks’ worth of aging that lends the fish a transfixing pale tawny hue. Tuna, which appeared at the start of the omakase in its leanest (and also, perhaps, its most flavorful) form, returns ready to strut its stuff. Chūtoro–known as “medium fatty tuna”–marks a perfect middle ground between “fish” flavor and fattiness. Phan, from what you recall, serves it rather traditionally, a choice that highlights its moderate characteristics relative to the other tuna pieces.

Otoro (fatty tuna).

Otoro, “fatty tuna,” is often thought of as the crown jewel of a sushi meal. Whether its fetishization stems from a sincere, but misguided, love of fat (see: all the subpar wagyu slung in this country) or has been primed through repeated placement at the pinnacle of the meal (along with the pricing to prove it) is unclear. Otoro is a joy to eat–you must admit that–but a great piece of nigiri should aspire to express more than pure umami. Phan, as he does so well throughout the meal, does not feel pressured to treat his most luxurious ingredients in an overly precious way. While some chefs opt to express uni or caviar or fatty tuna as purely as possible–inviting guests to bow down before the altar of Bacchus and thank the heavens for their meager ration of manna– Kyōten’s chef displays a familiarity and comfort with the most coveted arrows in his quiver. Just as the uni nigiri blended both fresh and brined sea urchin to create a more vivid, fuller expression of the ingredients, Phan is unafraid of offering his otoro a bit of help in expressing its true depth of character.

Seared otoro.

One night, that might mean searing the fatty tuna with his torch and topping it with yuzu zest, a sweet (caramelized) and sour accent that plays nicely off of the fish’s latent richness. On another occasion, you might see the chef stack not one, but two slices of otoro on his rice–making for a blanketing effect that plays the firm and fatty constituents of each slice of fish against each other. Sometimes, Phan will go through the laborious work of removing the otoro’s sinew. This removes any remaining sense of “chew” or structure from the fish; the result being something akin to spreadable “tuna butter.” If those options are not enough, otoro also provides the chef with the perfect vehicle to showcase edomae aging technique. One-month- and 35-day-aged fatty tuna have both made an appearance, displaying a wonderful concentration of their natural flavor along with a slightly firmer mouthfeel that, just the same, yields ever so easily to the gushing pockets of fat.

One-month-aged otoro.

Otoro, for many, represents the very summit of an omakase meal, yet Kyōten charges full steam ahead. Mackerel, with its oily texture and pronounced fish flavor, forms a fitting follow-up to the ephemeral fatty tuna. It appears, at times, as a traditional piece of nigiri; however, Phan has also once shaped the sliced fish around the top of a piece of uramaki (a sushi roll with the rice facing outside) before. There, the mackerel’s intensity had plenty of rice and “roll filling” to contend with, making for a rewarding, improvised combination that achieved a surprising balance. And Phan is not shy about serving classic sushi rolls either: they were his bread and butter when working out of the trailer in Austin. His minimalist avocado roll–as pure a celebration of texture as any maki can attain–has occasionally featured on the omakase from the very beginning. Other creations–like a “real” California roll made with Kyōten’s excellent king crab–may be offered upon request. Even the dreaded Philadelphia roll (smoked salmon, cream cheese, and cucumber) has made an appearance before, standing as a testament to both Phan’s irreverent streak and–when done so well–to the merit of such a seemingly-sacrilegious combination.

A5-rated Miyazaki wagyu beef.

For those diners less inclined to worship the fattiest of Phan’s fish, the chef’s meat might do more to delight them. Wagyu, that much-abused moniker for “really really good” beef, is given the respect it is owed at Kyōten. (The cow sculpture on the bar behind the chef would also seem to indicate so). The meat is typically sourced from Miyazaki or Hokkaido and always holds the highest “A5” (superior yield quality “A” and superior marbling “5” on two five-point scales) rating. Phan is partial to the tenderloin portion of the cow, which is well-suited to showcasing the full benefit of beef with such high fat content. As with the fish, he ages the cut to concentrate its savory, umami flavors. Chicagoans are certainly no stranger to dry-aging, but the size of the bite the chef will ultimately serve allows for the technique’s application to a piece of meat that would otherwise shrink too much to be served in a steakhouse.

Hokkaido “Snow Beef.”

Phan’s inaugural preparation of wagyu took the form of 2-week-aged Hokkaido wagyu tenderloin served as nigiri in a “prime rib style” (with grated horseradish). Though fresh, hand-grated wasabi from Japan finds its way into most every course of Kyōten’s omakase, large swaths of the American public have been misled by the green-dyed horseradish masquerading as wasabi at many mid-range sushi restaurants. Phan’s decision to embrace domestic horseradish (albeit, in its natural tone) rather than the more expensive Japanese variety for this one dish demonstrates his commitment to pleasure. Wagyu in Japan really will be served dressed with wasabi–the native variety adding a mild, cleansing counterpoint to the rich beef. American horseradish is more shocking, more pungent, but unmistakably nostalgic for anyone who has indulged in a classic shrimp cocktail or prime rib dinner at a place such as Lawry’s. Americans (and Chicagoans as the cosmopolitan ambassadors of the “heartland”) like big flavors. So, rather than serve a delicate slice of fatty beef on a sizzling stone with a schmear of wasabi en la mode Japonais, Phan torches a hearty slice of his dry-aged tenderloin and serves it on his large grains of rice with horseradish instead. The end result is wagyu nigiri for a “steak and potatoes” city; that is, it strikes the palate as a complete, pleasurable bite of beef rather than encouraging some austere study of the cow’s fat content.

30-day dry-aged A5-rated wagyu beef tenderloin.

But Phan is no one-trick pony, and he could never hitch his wagon to a solitary beef preparation no matter how playful the combination. He has served 30-day dry-aged wagyu tenderloin–an “experiment”–as nigiri in the traditional Japanese style. He has sourced Hokkaido snow beef tenderloin–an extra fatty breed due to their icy living conditions–for one preparation, being the only restaurant in the country to use that particular cut. Sometimes, the beef will be served atop a small bowl of rice and then drizzled with its rendered fat, allowing for greater control of each bite’s composition. Wagyu has even appeared inside of beef broth, with a paste made of black truffle blended in to make for a superlative “stew.” These many shapes and sizes of beef dishes–a range also seen in Phan’s treatment of the king crab and tuna–underline that Kyōten is a restaurant in flux. The chef never feels he has discovered the “perfect” preparation for any one ingredient–bending each week’s provision into an established form. Rather, Phan’s process is an unending quest for greater ingredients treated with ever-increasing care in pursuit of the unattainable, ultimate flavor they may give. Thus, it is hard to know what sort of wagyu will be served on a given evening or how the dish may be put together. But it is safe to say that guests with receive the best bite of beef Kyōten has ever served, and that the same will ring true the following day.

Thinly-sliced Wagyu beef in warm beef broth with shaved white truffles.

Following the wagyu, the meal’s denouement proper begins. Eel, that barbecued blight that seems to taste the same at every omakase, is prepared with far more care at Kyōten. (Phan will be the first to tell guests that most other establishments receive the very same packages of precooked product). The chef serves unagi (freshwater eel) rather than anago, the saltwater eel which typically predominates at sushi restaurants. The former is richer and fattier and typically considered too decadent to be made into sushi (rather than simply served over rice). Phan’s butchery of the fresh eel has caught many an eye on social media, and the end result has made you question whether you can stomach subpar anago ever again. Often, the unagi is cooked then torched and served in the same manner as all the other nigiri–that is to say, it benefits from little more than the vinegared rice, wasabi, and a bit of soy sauce. Yet you are struck by the freshwater eel’s natural sweetness, one that demands no heavy-handed use of the stereotypical “eel sauce.”

American eel (sourced from Maine).

Such sweetness makes a strong case for eel’s status as a luxury fish, but that does not mean Phan cannot have fun with it. One recent preparation saw the tender slices of anago take the place of braised pork in a bowl of Mexican-style mole with crema. Not only was the mole’s depth of flavor commendable (for a sushi chef of all people), but the sweetness of the eel proved so powerful, its texture so stunningly unctuous, that the end result tasted a lot like Texas barbecue burnt ends. You cannot imagine that eel has ever been treated in this way before, and it clearly benefits from the application of such a nuanced sauce that moves, again, beyond the one-note sweetness for which the fish’s traditional preparation is known. This kind of dish–which resists any shallow claim of “fusion” or “appropriation” by means of its boldness–reveals Phan’s mind at its most uninhibited. It imbues the meal with a powerful sense of singularity–that nobody else in the world, at this very moment, is eating any eel preparation that’s so off-the-wall (and, yet, rooted in authentic cultural exchange).

Wagyu beef and white truffle served atop a beef fat-infused congee.

As exemplified by the dual eel preparations just mentioned, this point in the omakase typically turns from nigiri back towards small plates. Small plate–singular–that is. Phan closes out the savory portion of the meal with a sense of elegance and, more importantly, restraint. He no longer seeks to impress–having already scaled the heights of decadence and luxury throughout the evening–but, rather, leaves the guest rubbing their belly with a contented smile. These closing dishes have included, over time, matsutake mushroom with white truffle in a mushroom broth, white truffle shaved over rice, white truffle shaved over wagyu-fat-infused congee, and a simple miso soup made from spiny lobster stock. While these final, truffled bites of inochi-no-ichi serve to underline its superlative texture throughout the meal, Phan’s broths also deserve special praise. They rank, you must say, as the best soups served at any omakase in Chicago and some of the very best in the city overall (rivaled only by soup specialists like Chris Nugent of Goosefoot).

Green Hill cheese melted onto rice and wrapped with seaweed.

Phan’s aforementioned fondness for Philadelphia rolls–a humanizing guilty pleasure for a top-tier itamae–is not merely a quirk. The chef clearly sees nothing sacrilegious about combining cheese and sushi, and, from time to time, he proves the point by looking far beyond lowly cream cheese. As a transitional course between savory and sweet, Phan puts forth a nigiri of Camembert cheese that has been kissed with the torch until it bubbles and clenches the top layer of rice with its milky tendrils. Relative to the Philadelphia roll, no fish were harmed in the making of this bite. Rather, it’s an undiluted celebration of an excellent cheese. Phan surely isn’t the first to craft such a treat, but–as is often the case at Kyōten­–his larger grains of rice lend the Camembert an incomparable canvas to ooze in between and rest against the tongue. On other occasions, Green Hill–an American double cream cow’s milk cheese made in the same style–has substituted for its French counterpart. It melts in the same manner, but, in contrast with the Camembert, the domestic variety is served wrapped around a piece of seaweed with rice at the bottom and a drizzle of sweet soy sauce on top. The Green Hill may lack the subtlety of its French inspiration, but it makes up for that with the purity of its grassy milk flavor. These lactic notes form a fitting partner with the seaweed and sweet soy, which, in structural terms, bring the “cheese course” even closer to resembling a “proper” piece of sushi.

An early representation of Phan’s tamago.

At long last, the omakase reaches dessert. And, for once, Phan attaches himself fully to tradition. Tamago is the name of the game–the (slightly) sweet folded egg omelette forming the quintessential ending to any omakase. Those who have viewed Jiro Dreams of Sushi are familiar with just how demanding creating this deceptively plain, unspeakably nuanced dessert can be. Should the texture be more like a cake or a custard? Should the flavor smack of egg (with a touch of sugar) or something more like caramel (with a touch of egg)? For a chef used to coloring outside the lines with his most prized ingredients, the humble tamago demands Phan’s supplication. While it is fair to ask how a prime piece of fish might best be utilized, running the gamut of techniques from any particular culture that may lend themselves to the task, something so beguilingly simple leaves no room to hide. The technique and execution must simply be perfect, as any sign of a twist or gimmick all buts admits a certain failure at the task at hand.

A cross-section from a more recent preparation of tamago.

For this reason, Phan shied away from serving tamago for a time. It had appeared on the omakase during the first few months following Kyōten’s opening but later receded as the chef felt it was not quite good enough to form one of the menu’s mainstays. (Such are his standards!) That original rendition–served during your early visits to the restaurant in 2018–already ranked as the very best in Chicago. It featured somewhat of a “wet,” custardy sheen, a flan-like texture, and a rich, tres leches-style flavor. In short, it was an egg omelette for dessert lovers (but one that, nonetheless, resolutely featured the “egg” flavor front and center). You were sorry to see it disappear for much of the following year but felt heartened by the dynamism shown by Phan’s other dishes.

Finally, after some prodding by guests, the tamago returned to the menu in 2020–and it’s better than ever. The present rendition is firmer and drier to the touch (which is to say that the texture is more traditional) while sacrificing none of the lip-smacking flavor that first distinguished it. Phan has even, as of late, toyed with utilizing duck eggs for the batter, which impart still-greater richness to the tamago. But the beauty of the bite, whatever its form, comes from its delicate sweetness and a mouthfeel that caresses the palate confidently, soothingly as a coda to the countless inochi-no-ichi creations that comprise the omakase.

Now, for the closer. Not a bang, not a whimper, but something serene. Something poised, self-possessed, and pure as the many pristine fish which formed the meal. While Mako and Yume embrace manipulated desserts like matcha panna cotta (with red bean and pistachio), Japanese “soufflé” (with saskatoon berry), or warm Japanese sweet potato (with whiskey caramel and crème diplomate), Phan carries his philosophy towards sourcing the very best ingredients down to the very last bites. In fact, during the period where the chef’s tamago did not feature on the menu, this one dish would anchor the entire “sweet” portion of the meal. Phan deserves some special credit for not outsourcing the duty of dessert to the underlings hidden away in a back kitchen (à la Mako) or simply striking upon a singular, unchanging offering (à la Yume).

French cantaloupe.

The last piece of plateware arrives at the bar, and you look down to find a few succulent pieces of Michigan cantaloupe drizzled in local honey. Or maybe, this week, you’ll find strawberries in syrup or persimmons in plum wine or, perhaps, sliced pears soaked in jasmine tea. Maybe it’s mango season. Maybe Phan has some extraordinary whole strawberries from Japan, or French cantaloupe, or Fuji apples (in spiced plum wine). From time to time, the strawberries might even be white (and come served with a decadent miso cream). Whatever the case, the name of the game is fruit: fruit in a form that approaches perfection.

White strawberries.

For, an omakase formed through careful manipulation of the sea’s bounty should not be capped off with the contrived creations of a pastry chef. Rather, the chef’s mind should be allowed to roam towards the sweeter side of nature. Seasonality and the chef’s own discerning standards do the rest of the work. Each piece of fruit shines as the very finest exemplar of its respective flavor and texture; that is to say, the same precision which characterizes Phan’s fish preparations finds its way into dessert. Such magnificent morsels demand nothing more than the lightest of dressings. Honey, sugar syrup, plum wine, tea, and cream, in turn, form fitting partners. Just as the chef balances vinegar, wasabi, and soy, he delicately accents his fruit in fulfillment of its most superlative flavor. Diners may think, “is that all?” at first, but these closing dishes can only speak to Phan’s confidence (regarding the satisfaction his meal imparts) and commitment (to a philosophy that prizes an elegance that only quality ingredients, served simply, can entail).

Phan puts the finishing touches on his new shaved ice dessert (made using the blue machine in the background).

Phan’s move to private dining, it must be said, has empowered him to make Kyōten’s dessert a bit more involved of a process. Still, it does not sway from its focus on the purity of fruit flavor. Now, when the time comes, the chef lugs a bright blue contraption onto the counter that looks something like a stand mixer on steroids. It’s actually an electric ice shaver, which Phan uses for the production of his own kakigōri. Now, those who have read your Gaijin review may recall that the variant of kakigōri served there, while visually appealing, suffered for a lack of adequate flavoring syrup. Kyōten solves this problem through the creation of their own “super frozen strawberry ice” which ensures that each an every shaving smacks of fruit flavor. The block of ice is put through the machine, with the pulverized shards forming a pillowy mound over a reservoir of miso cream. A bit of gold leaf is strewn on top for visual effect, but the dessert remains one of pure flavors and carefully-controlled texture. It forms a fitting, fun final act for a sushi chef extraordinaire.

The presentation of the strawberry shaved ice (with miso cream hidden at the bottom of the bowl).

In the afterglow of Kyōten’s omakase, your mind does not quite know which dishes to latch onto. In some sense, the task is a lot like choosing one’s favorite segment of a rollercoaster ride: of course, the steepest drops (e.g. tilefish and caviar, crab and corn) regale you with their intensity, but are they anything without the anticipation, the bobs and furrows that ensure you never quite know when the “big one” is coming? And should one really reduce the sensation of a rollercoaster ride down only to its peaks? Does the thrill not come, in part, from riding along a carefully constructed track where every dip and turn tickles you with a different sensation? Part of the pleasure, it seems, arrives simply from the feeling of the lap bar against you–its promise that you must only submit (and keep your arms and legs inside the vehicle) to be whisked off on a tour of wonder, an experience that amounts to more than the sum of its parts.

Then, suddenly, like the souvenir photograph taken at the rollercoaster’s pivotal moment, Kyōten’s take-home treat arrives. It is not a paltry chocolate bar, a blend of coffee beans, or potpourri to perfume one’s home. Rather, the small box humbly offered along with the check contains the quintessence of the omakase experience. It features one last roll–a futomaki or oversized “fat rolled sushi”–made from the choicest scraps of wagyu beef, pickled vegetables, and long slivers of the leftover tamago. Of course, the inochi-no-ichi features one last time too. This take-home dish is intended to last at room temperature for consumption the following morning, but it takes all of your strength not to devour the box by the time you return home. It is sweet, sour, and phenomenally fatty. It reminds you–just when some of the afterglow has started to fade–what a transcendent meal had been served. The roll gives more pleasure, in that moment of private indulgence, than Chicago’s other omakases across the entirety of their menus.

A piece of maki made from wagyu beef and tamago similar to that which customers are given to take home.

What, at this point, is really left to say about Kyōten? Well, in truth, you think to compare Kyōten to any other omakase in town does the restaurant a disservice. Phan’s peers are worthy of respect insofar as they raise the level of sushi appreciation in Chicago; however, theirs will always be a derivative, diminutive form of the craft. These chefs work backwards, bending their ingredients to a “traditional” Japanese form that can be sold to customers as “authentic” (buffered, all the while, with a few token creations from the chef and his kitchen meant to placate the sushi skeptics). Today, Mako and Yume may each have their Michelin star, but they’ll never attain a second. They are static, safe restaurants only suited to a city in the midst of a transition towards the appreciation of Japanese cuisine. The chefs excel at playing the part of the “sushi chef” on the prettiest stages in town, yet their acts have already gotten stale.

Mako and Yume, for all the halfhearted praise from local and national critics, are products of an insecure culture. They represent–to those inclined to view the Midwest as a repository for the nation’s backwards masses–baby’s first steps towards an appreciation of “finer food.” Never mind that neither Park would come anywhere close to earning a Michelin star in New York City or California (you’d be surprised if the restaurants could even stay afloat in such markets). Rather than truly being good, both Mako and Yume have been judged as “good enough” for a city whose tastes have long been infantilized by the cultural elite. “No matter if Mako’s rice is lifeless,” they seem to say, “so long as Chicagoans stop shoving deep dish and hot dogs down their pieholes.” The powers at be have decided that a “city like Chicago” must have a high-end omakase. It must be traditional, it must feel luxurious, and it must work to make these Midwestern morons a little more like the fashionable city folk that live on the coasts.

The food? Who cares about the food? Nobody goes to Chicago for sushi! Let them watch the chef play with his tiny grains of rice, wolf down their cooked fish and duck dishes, take their pictures, and trot out the door having tried this totally amazing new thing called an “omakase.” Let them post the photo on social media right alongside their dalliance with Alinea’s edible balloon–that is to say, right alongside another bunch of hot air. The idea that Chicago sushi should be defined by chefs content to replicate what other restaurants in other cities are doing should strike any resident as repugnant. We should never be content to wear another city’s hand-me-downs, nor should we contort ourselves to “appreciate” food that fails to suit our tastes simply because others parts of the country find it fashionable. We should not become just another market where style trumps substance and “luxury experiences” are defined by what we can show off to others rather than what we ourselves enjoy.

Mako and Yume fit the Alinea mold. They reject any sense of a Midwestern voice, of true self-expression that can only be rooted in a person, a place, and a time becoming one. Like Alinea, they aim to create an experience rooted outside of and apart from Chicago. They reject that anything about this place is special enough to influence the “high art” of their cookery. And, ironically enough, that cookery ultimately falls flat at pleasing the native population. Chicagoans are nudged by the national and international press towards assimilating their tastes with these poisoned chalices, but they know better.

Fine dining dilettantes–lacking the wherewithal to note they really weren’t that impressed with their experience, let alone to criticize it–may keep the farce going in perpetuity. (They already paid for the meal, so why not get their money’s worth by heaping on some empty praise with their pictures on social media?) These dilettantes are the conspicuous consumers cynical chefs like Grant Achatz (and his duffle bag boy Nick) misguidedly devote their creative powers towards pleasing. But Chicagoans do know how to eat. They recognize pleasure–true pleasure–when it arrives, and they are wise enough to know that it rarely has anything to do with “luxury” as market research may define it.

Maki made from brined uni and chopped toro.

Otto Phan follows in the footsteps of chefs like Charlie Trotter, Paul Kahan, Michael Carlson, Laurent Gras, and John Shields. You may even say that he follows in the footsteps of Grant Achatz–before “the man” became “the brand,” and before “the brand” decided it cared little about championing Chicago as anything more than a convenient backdrop for their culinary deconstruction. Phan is that rare fish in the sea who respects tradition, worships tradition, squeezes tradition for all it is worth, and then never looks back. Yet, the “new train of thought” (so to speak) he embodies is totally devoid of ego.

When a traditional technique does the job–when it cannot be topped as a deliverer of pleasure–Phan will execute that technique to the utmost of his ability. For, in the chef’s mind, it would be better to omit an ingredient altogether than fail to prepare it as well as (or better than) any other restaurant. To concern himself with smoke, mirrors, and other superficial manipulations– that is, to embrace novelty for novelty’s sake–is to shrink from the challenge (the only, eternal challenge) of crafting the best dish possible. Phan concerns himself with texture, flavor, temperature, and tempo. He cooks for the customers before him, not for the camera, the PR firm, the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, the social media influencer, or even–at this point–Michelin. That means sourcing the best ingredients–from near or from far–in service of the palates placed before him on a given night. Palates, Phan is wise enough to know, that are in search of pleasure, not a sideshow, not a pit stop on the way to the hot dog joint (the post-Alinea fast food meal being one of few traditions that restaurant stands for).

A sense of indulgence reigns at Kyōten, but ingredients are never wielded thoughtlessly.

In search of pleasure, Phan sometimes realizes that tradition alone will not get the job done. From its foundation, intuition takes over, in consultation with a philosophy that values the purity, harmony, and distinction of ingredients (dare you call it a “Japanese” philosophy?) Here, relative to Chicago’s other sushi chefs, Kyōten’s chef-patron proves himself to be untouchable. While they consciously cook as a sushi chef is “supposed to,” Phan–confident in his mastery–simply cooks. He swims in the current of his own creative process untethered, unanchored, completely open to any and all inspiration that may ultimately serve to please the guest. This is what makes Phan so special. He has scaled the heights of technical mastery and secured the highest quality ingredients available in Chicago. Rather than force his customers to bow before his talent, to nod and smile no matter how the food tastes, he invites them into his kingdom. Phan spoils them with the riches of his knowledge and invites them, as he so unfailingly does, to be themselves. In doing so, guests become friends. More than that, they become partners in a process of exploration through the genuine application of the omakase form to the Midwest.

Kyōten may be the only sushi restaurant in the country that looks forward at what America–its blend of cultures and its natural bounty–might offer Japanese tradition. Though this country counts scores of highly-skilled Japanese chefs doing incredible work, Phan–a native son–embodies the latent freedom of this land. His omakase declares, “we are a country–nay, a city–that concerns itself with innovation rather than replication.”

Phan may be America’s first “postmodern” sushi chef, the first who has altogether freed himself of the pressure to conform–to anything. While stoic, stilted, aged sushi chefs may still be the rage in other cities, Phan’s act comes closer to stand-up comedy. He has grasped, like few chefs across all manners of cuisine, that the chef’s counter, the sushi bar offers customers a personalized experience par excellence. Dining at Kyōten does not mean customers merely have “front row seats” to watch anonymous bodies toil away, but an entirely private concert with a maestro who is more than open to requests.

In the experience economy, authenticity is king, and Phan cannot be anything but authentic. To step into Kyōten is to step into his mind, and–as anyone with an internal monologue might know–the mind has no filter. Phan’s staff match his energy, and they help make the magic happen. No doubt, thinking back to his days in the trailer, the chef knows he could do it alone if need be. But the restaurant grows in stature with every soul committed to its mission, and Phan is lucky to have found and fostered employees who share his devotion towards pleasing the guest.

Kyōten, to put a novella’s worth of analysis to bed, is one of few restaurants you have ever visited that feels unmistakably “alive.” No part of the experience is concocted, and none of the emotions one feels when dining there have been spoon-fed to them by slick graphics and advertising copy. Rather, Phan and friends invite you to become a part of their story, to write your own chapter with them in whatever way comes naturally. You can trust that they will do everything possible to please you in your time together, and they succeed at doing so in a manner that Chicago has never quite seen before.

Three Pineapples: an ultimate expression of hospitality, a peak experience that reminds us why life is worth living, a restaurant as warm and genuine as grandma’s house.