1603 S. Congress Ave. Austin, TX 78704
Recently myself and a group of friends had the opportunity to dine at Paul Qui’s newest offering, Otoko. Launched out of the brand new South Congress Hotel, Otoko has been well received and heavily talked about in food circles. To say I was excited would be a gross understatement.
The journey to the restaurant began up an unmarked staircase to a covered platform. There we found a great door with OTOKO written in perforated, backlit steel to its right. I couldn’t help but muse that a secret knock or password was needed to enter. Fortunately, this wasn’t the case.
We were greeted cheerfully in a small, backlit entryway by a well-dressed hostess. The intent was very clear the moment you enter: you are somewhere exclusive and there is no room for a crowd. This was reinforced by the modest size and limited seating of the Watertrade, Otoko’s bar open to the public on a reservation only basis.
Faintly by Edison bulbs, Watertrade is lined with polished stainless steel and warm leather furniture, elegantly modern in design. Drinks include craft cocktails, often including sake, wines, sparkling offerings, and a fine selection of Japanese whiskeys. After a few minutes of drinking and carrying on, a suited man collected us for our seating in the restaurant.
The dining room itself consists of a very intimate, twelve seat bamboo counter placing you in the front row of Chef Yoshi Okai’s culinary spectacle. As the first seating of the evening, the room was particularly intimate. A rear-lit, enveloping glass fixture with dark slats suggestive of shoji screens extends from floor to ceiling, creating a flow and connection between the dining room and kitchen.
The meal is an omakase experience, meaning the dishes are selected by the chef based on ingredient availability and seasonality. The twenty course offering blends Tokyo-style sushi with Kyoto-style kaiseki (multi-course dinner), each one masterfully designed and presented.
The amouse-bouche of the evening was diced jellyfish in uni sauce. I found the firm texture of the jellyfish delightful, especially against the richness of the fried shiitake garnish. Cucumber brought a lightness to the dish while acidic finger limes cut through the unctuous uni sauce. The broth was so pleasing I asked permission to drink it directly from the bowl. The Chef appreciated this.
With prickly pear and Wood Ear mushroom, this starter did not disappoint. Sweet and savory flavors with contrasting textures were brought together with a sour saltiness of the umeboshi sauce.
Of the nine sushi dishes provided none failed to excite the palate. The Shigoku oyster with steelhead roe compromised nothing as it came full force with a salty, smoked profile cut ingeniously with a refreshingly bright turks cap flower.
The Mishima wagyu beef was sinfully rich and utterly addicting. Topped unapologetically with onion-y negimiso sauce and minced chives, the boldness of this piece burnt itself into my memory.
Anyone who loves seafood loves uni. The Hokkaido uni was far and away the best I have personally had. Hearty in flavor without the acrid metallic taste of lesser quality unis. Complimented with freshly grated wasabi and hearty white sturgeon caviar, I fear that this will become the ruler by which all future uni is measured.
Literally meaning “placed to the side,” mukouzuke refers to an open ceramic bowl used to serve slices of sashimi, likely in a sauce. The standout among these two courses was the Suzuki (Japanese seabass), with kyuri, tomatoes, and mint in a ponzu sauce. Light, aromatic, and delightfully fresh, this prepared my palate for the rest of the meal.
This was the course that stole the show, literally. Skillfully cut Hamachi fish touched subtly with a smoldering Binchotan charcoal and finished with a smoked tamari sauce. This is one of those flavors that haunts you for life. Just a smoky, salty, umami bomb that makes bacon seem obsolete. That was as weird to write and it is for you to read, I’m sure.
Goma dofu with flavorful sauces of tsuyu and kurogoma. Spiced with freshly grated wasabi and balanced with perfumes of shiso. I was surprised by how light the texture of the dofu was, almost similar to a firm custard or panna cotta.
Nasu, or Japanese eggplant, was fried kara age style and topped with house made natural MSG, sesame oil and the bright garlic-onion flavor of chives. Great crunch and saltiness along with the clean taste of the nasu made this dish a winner.
I found this course to be the most complex and intriguing of them all. An heirloom tomato broth containing herbaceous mitsuba, firm zucchini, and crunchy pine nuts topped with unripened avocado. This was an ingenious play on sweet and sour flavors with great fatty richness. The addition of black truffle oil solidified the soup into what I can only describe as a world class Japanese gazpacho.
This seasonal dessert was comprised of plump blackberries and blueberries with a charmingly tart puree of yuzu which provided flavors of grapefruit a mandarin orange. A wonderful sorbet style course segueing into the rich, final dessert.
The nickname “Mushroom Mountain” deftly describes the stunning dessert course. Chocolate capped shimeji mushrooms with crispy tofu croutons, a goat’s milk frozen yogurt pyramid and freeze dried soy sauce. Brought together with condensed soy milk, this dish displayed not only Chef Yoshi’s skill with design and flavor, but his playfulness and lack of pretense.
Overall the menu was well-balanced and quite comprehensive without being bloated or unnecessary. It blended unique flavor profiles, traditional Japanese techniques, and careful touches of molecular gastronomy. Ingredient quality stood forefront, driven by masterful execution and thoughtful progression. Chef Yoshi was charming and very personable, making you feel as welcomed as a guest in his home. The staff was attentive, knowledgeable, and skillfully distant. While the ticket price may seem daunting at $150.00, the remarkable experience makes it well worth the cost. Otoko represents the true artistry and balance of Japanese cuisine. We’re lucky to have it here in Austin.