Yoshi Dreams of (More Than) Sushi

Otoko isn't what you think it is

Yoshi Okai
Yoshi Okai (by John Anderson)

Despite opening fanfare proclaiming it a pet project of the Top Chef star, Paul Qui never plan­ned to cut the fish (even before his recent arrest), but rather saw it as a chance to endorse his longtime colleague and mentor Yoshi Okai. A Kyoto-born jack-of-all-Japanese-trades, his 22-course tasting menu is a kaiseki-style journey through different preparations of Japanese cuisine.

Traditionally a kaiseki experience progresses from light appetizers (sakizuke, zensai) to steamed (mushimono), fried (agemono), and grilled (yakimono) courses, then closes with a hot pot soup (shirumono), fresh fruit (mizumono), and dessert (kanmi). In Kyoto the flavors skew toward umami over saltiness, which translates to Otoko's use of a lighter shoyu soy sauce and signature dashi that's savory enough to sip on.

There's always a sashimi course (mukouzuke), but sushi is atypical of most kaiseki menus. Breaking with tradition, Otoko sneaks in eight or nine nigiri bites at the beginning of the meal, working from lighter white sea bass to oak-grilled Wagyu from the original Mishima breed, topped with luxuriously rich scallion miso sauce. But the sushi is just one part of the show.

Unlike many sushi chefs whose knife skills don't translate to the kitchen, Okai learned to cook before slicing sashimi thanks to his early years spent helping his family's catering business. At the age of 20 he moved from Kyoto to California with a diverse set of cooking skills, but an aspiration to study landscape architecture (his family's other business was a flower shop).

When it proved too easy to assimilate into L.A.'s large Japanese community, he headed to Austin for a more culturally diverse experience. Landscaping was traded in for a makimono-rolling position at Uchi and lead vocalist duties in punk band the Kodiaks, which also happened to feature pitmaster Tom Micklethwait on guitar. Years later he'd go on to help open the East Side King at Hole in the Wall and work in the kitchen at qui. The Kodiaks no longer play shows, but he's likely the only head chef of a ticketed tasting menu with his band's 7-inch single behind the counter.

Otoko translates roughly to "strong man" and Okai and sous chef Sam Walter exude a full-sleeved punk rock energy, which seems contradictory to ticketed seats, personalized fine-dining service, and the most expensive omakase menu in town. Skeptics might scoff, but the system helps temper lines of Austin diners that would fight for the 36 nightly seats (three seatings of 12), and also lets the restaurant know exactly how much money they'll be making each month. With the guesswork taken out of their margins, it allows for an indulgent, devil-may-care attitude toward ingredient sourcing that justifies the $150 reservation price.

For instance, Okai buys specific herb seeds that HausBar Farms grows just for him. And when the farm's mascot goose couple Gustavo and Gabriela crank out their yearly six eggs, Otoko's lean nightly covers mean they can turn that half-dozen into a special egg custard for the mushimono course to feed four nights' worth of guests.

The intimate nature of seating, a wraparound bar that frames Okai and Walter's open kitchen, allows them to interact directly with the guests and explain the composition of each dish. The chefs will wax on about personal favorites like a lightly tempura-fried Japanese eggplant, but like in most restaurants that serve sushi, the ultimate ingredient is the bluefin tuna.

Chefs usually serve bluefin with a side of guilt due to its dwindling population, but Otoko has no qualms about having the endangered fish on the menu because it's sourced sustainably. The current supply stems from a 110-pound whole fish that Okai broke down himself, saving typically discarded bits for creative dishes like fried tendon tacos and mousse made from the fish's bloodline. And they've even found a way to amplify the flavor on the fillets by dry-aging it for a month, a process that leads to a level of shrinkage that would make most restaurant managers have a nervous breakdown. Alex Dubey, formerly of Apis and a string of NYC fine-dining restaurants like Jean-Georges, shrugs off the loss as more of a gain.

It's this type of attitude that helps Otoko dodge the main pitfall of many luxe tasting menus: that a diner will leave hungry. More often it's been the case that the barrage of dishes doesn't leave room for dessert, but the direct interaction between diner and chef means it's not hard for them to send out an extra course. If that sounds like a dream, Otoko is just the ticket.

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Yoshi Okai, Otoko, Sam Walter, Paul Qui

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