The Rise of Sushi Yeezus

Michael Nagrant / 12.11.18

I did not expect things at the restaurant to start out like a Viagra ad.

Me: “It’s ok. It happens.”

Chef: “Not to me it doesn’t. I don’t think that has ever happened.”

Although we’ll get to what occurred, that isn’t ultimately as important as the fact that the response here is pure Otto Phan. Phan is the sushi chef/owner of Chicago’s newish super-luxe omakase sushi experience. If you’ve paid any attention to his media coverage, or his Instagram account, you will know that Phan believes he is the Kanye of Kenmedai.

When the Austin ex-pat first announced Kyōten, his Logan Square restaurant, he told the Chicago Tribune, “There’s no good sushi in Chicago.”

A few months later, he walked that dog back and then let the pit bull off the leash for real, telling Eater Chicago, ““I feel sorry about that, and feel that was very ignorant of me … I should have said that sushi in Chicago IS BAD.”

Since then he has posted gems on his Instagram account like:

“My sushi grains are bigger. In fact, they’re the biggest ever in the history.”

“Saké girl says she gets it in just for me, since I’m the only one who asks for it in Chicago. I tend to do that: ask for really, really nice things that no one else asks for, because I only go by my palate and instinct, not trendy marketing or cute salespeople… So don’t copy me, OK?! 😜”

“Ever since @thrillist named us one of the “31 Best Sushi Restaurants in America”, I’ve been thinking that they’re one of the best publications ever. Seriously. Just my unbiased opinion. Actually, I’m THE LEAST biased sushi nazi you’ve ever met in your entire life. Believe me. 😑”

Don’t let the emoji shade fool you. Phan makes Kanye look self-aware. He is the perfect sushi chef for the age of Donald Trump. You could set up an amazing pay-per-view event wherein Phan serves the Cheeto-in-Chief some of his rare A5 Wagyu only to have Trump pass it back and ask for it be incinerated and returned with a side of ketchup.

Someone would die.

Sometimes it’s ok to act like Yamaimo Yeezus if you can back it up. Kanye wrote 808s and Heartbreak. I don’t know what Trump did, but I’m sure it was something spectacularly illegal.

Ultimately though, unchecked arrogance, no matter how many collaborations you’ve done with Takashi Murakami and Fatburger, is dangerous. Pretty soon you’re retroactively legitimizing slavery and putting out The Life of Pablo. I know technically “Pablo” was a “soft opening” and the record’s technically still not done. Soft apologies for the criticism, Mr. West!

That being said, how much is really at stake if you mistakenly believe you’re the lord of sushi? Death by poorly butchered Fugu, aka blowfish, I guess? But very few people do that in America anyway. So I forded Phan’s river of impertinence and made the pilgrimage to witness the self-proclaimed titan of toro, the guru of gari (pickled ginger), and plunked down a good part of my monthly housing budget for the privilege.

When I say pilgrimage, I’m not being completely hyperbolic. Kyōten is buried inside a commercial building. There is no sign to guide you, which is a very Alinea-esque move for a chef who claims to follow nothing but his own heart. When I find my way to the restaurant, I am inside a spartan waiting room, separated from the main dining room by a curtain. I don’t feel like I’m going to a sushi temple as much as I start getting nervous that maybe my blood test results came back with some abnormalities.

As I sit down at the honey-colored wood sushi counter I notice a gouge in the drywall. One of the fire suppression sprinklers is missing its shiny metal collar. There is a zen cherry blossom print on the wall of the kitchen, but there’s also the annoying tinkling of a water fountain behind me. This last observation might seem picky, but I noticed some of my fellow diners making multiple trips to the bathroom during the roughly three-hour meal. I thought at first there was some abnormal prostate activity, or a secret blow-sniffing party I was missing out on, but later talked to someone who said that the incessant drip of the fountain just made them want to pee.

I tend to focus on food quality first, and normally wouldn’t give much weight to these things, but, remember, I was dropping a car payment on this meal for the promise of test driving a sushi Porsche.

You know what has never happened to me in twenty years or so of eating every kind of sushi there is including $1 sushi, mall sushi served on a conveyor belt, and delivery sushi where the hot miso soup stacked on top of the Styrofoam holding your raw fish has potentially kick-started the food safety danger zone and future bacterial growth on its way to my house in a hot box? I have never gotten a bone in my sushi.

But there I was, at Kyōten, so in thrall to Phan, that I didn’t even snap a photo of my first piece of sushi for my Instagram account. Nothing would stop me from fully concentrating on receiving sea-dwelling eucharist from the highest of priests. And concentrate I did, until I was very determinedly gumming a fish bone buried within a slab of umi masu, or Tasmanian ocean trout.

But, like I said, it happens.

It turns out Phan is truly not a sushi Nazi. He’s cool with people taking pictures of their sushi before they pop it in their mouths. He’s down with you making conversation with your fellow diners. He regales the crowd with stories of his sushi plate designer from Austin, an artiste who can never meet a production deadline. Phan tells us about his shady Galveston, Texas-based shrimp purveyor, a guy who gets him “Royal Reds” that taste more like buttery lobster than shrimp.

There are many epiphanies at Kyōten. I have had Edomae-style of sushi before, but I never remembered any other chef’s kohada, or gizzard shad, which is basically like the sushi version of pickled herring. Phan’s has a delightful vinegary barnyard funk that leaves me craving an Aquavit chaser. To make up for the errant bone, Phan fed my new addiction, and served me an extra piece at the end of the meal.

The richness of Otoro and the sweetness of its light binchotan smoke is rounded out by the zing of yuzu citrus. Spanish mackerel dry-aged for about a week, its belly blasted and charred by a blowtorch, has the satisfying chew and funk of an aged-ribeye. Phan’s silky tamago tastes like a crème brulee made sweet love to a Jacques Pepin hand-massaged quiche.

Apologies that I keep returning to Trump, but Phan’s personal sushi style is bigly. As per his Instagram boast, he really does have the large rice, using a plump grain that’s reminiscent of Arborio risotto-style rice. His fish slices are slab-like. Phan’s offerings are tailor-made for our Super Big Gulp-chugging, trenta-coffee slurping, and ghost-pepper-popping food culture. Phan’s sushi flexes. It is muscular, brutal, and an unapologetic destroyer. It is early-career Mike Tyson sushi. Sometimes this works. Sometimes it feels like I’m going down on John Holmes.

Phan slashes the surface of many of his fish cuts with the fervor of Dexter Morgan. He told me he does this because it helps some types of fish conform better to the sushi rice. But, on more than one occasion I found the loosely-wrapped sushi rice falling on to my plate and my lap. My tongue running over the cross-cut flesh made me feel like I was French-kissing a swatch of rippled velvet.

Priests need their acolytes, and throughout my meal I was also a bit disconcerted by the creepy Dr. Frankenstein/Igor-type relationship Phan has with his assistant Brandon. Whenever he needed something, Phan summoned Brandon in a slightly sinister sing-song tone that recalled Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Phantom yelping for Christine, “BRAN-dooooone!” Brandon scurried to Phan’s side, and while he never said “Yes, master”, I felt like later on someone was getting a spanking.

At this point, you probably think I have a Biggie/Tupac-sized beef with Phan. But I genuinely admire him and his aim. He wants a Michelin star. He has a strong unique vision for his sushi. He thinks deeply and makes deliberate choices. While, I prefer lithe scrims of sushi and tiny rice, many will love his modern robust approach.

I love that Phan makes fresh sushi rice mid-way through service (with the aid of Brandon!), so you’re always getting plump warm grains instead of sticky, starchy, deflated cold clumps. His sourcing, whether it’s the shady Royal Red shrimp, his creamy briny uni, or the supple nori he uses for his tuna hand rolls, shows impeccable taste.

Phan’s attention to technique and detail, his devotion to his craft, and his willingness to buck traditions also reminds me of iconoclastic chefs like Grant Achatz and the late Homaro Cantu.

Despite my criticisms, Phan’s declarations of sushi prowess aren’t unfounded. He is making better sushi than almost anyone in Chicago. However, when Naoki Nakashima of Naoki and B.K. Park of Juno are on their games, I believe they deliver a more enjoyable, consistent, and higher value sushi experience than the one at Kyōten.

The price point of Kyōten, $220 (inclusive of tax and tip), also forces me to consider opportunity cost. If I stretch just a little more, I know I can eat an incredible meal at Alinea, Oriole, or Acadia. This is not to say I’m not willing to pay a lot for perfect raw fish. Top shelf sushi is my desert island meal. At least two of my top food experiences ever were Edomae-style omakase from Gen Mizoguchi at Yui Edomae and Kabuto in Las Vegas.

Ultimately, if you preach perfection, you can’t deliver any deficiency. Phan worked for the legendary sushi master Masa Takayama (Masa charges $595 for his omakase). Masa taught Phan that there is a “beyond the beyond” worth seeking. I genuinely believe Phan will eventually find it and look forward to experiencing the transcendence.