A few weeks ago, I walked up to an unmarked door along Armitage Avenue and laughed. Like a condemned building, it had torn brown paper covering the glass doors. In the entryway sat a refrigerator, unplugged and wrapped in plastic. Half-opened cardboard boxes rested on top, next to a few bottles of wine.
This is what greeted me at Kyoten, where an 18-course meal costs between $440 and $490 per person. That is almost twice as much as other local omakase restaurants and around the same as Alinea’s most expensive seats.
After returning for the first time in five years, I’m also confident Kyoten is on the shortlist of Chicago’s best restaurants.
In our first conversation before he opened Kyoten in 2018, chef and owner Otto Phan laid out all his ambitions: “There’s no good sushi in Chicago. There’s this huge bull’s-eye on the city because it’s the only Michelin-starred city in the U.S. without a Michelin-starred sushi restaurant. It’s ripe for the picking.”
This tells you quite a bit about Phan, a Texas transplant with an insatiable drive that blurs the line between well-deserved confidence and needless arrogance. But even though he opened Kyoten to strong reviews, Michelin has yet to grant the restaurant any stars, while other sushi spots like Omakase Yume and Mako each have one.
After visiting in 2018, I understood the Michelin snub. Kyoten’s meal started off strong and then stumbled a bit as the dishes got heavier. The charmless room could have just as easily been an undecorated dentist’s waiting room. Service was bare bones at best.
To his credit, Phan understands now. “If you drop a fork at a three-Michelin-star restaurant, a server quickly picks it up,” Phan said. “That’s a great standard, but I don’t operate like that. And do people really care? As long as you get them a new fork before the next course, that’s fine. What’s more important is the food and respecting your ingredients. Those are my top priorities.”
I had no plan to revisit Kyoten this year, but Phan’s second and cheaper restaurant, Kyoten Next Door, floored me. Along with costing a third of the price, the experience was more polished, surprising and enjoyable than my visit to Kyoten five years earlier. The stunning room, designed by Su Yang, also displayed a warm elegance completely at odds with its more expensive sister. Either Kyoten Next Door was the better restaurant, despite costing three times less, or something had happened to Kyoten.
Kyoten still doesn’t care much about first impressions. But walk into the dining room, and it’s clear Phan made some big changes. In 2021, he completely renovated Kyoten with the help of Yang, changing the arrangement of the counter and adding dramatic pieces of art to the walls. While I still think Yang’s work on Kyoten Next Door is more impressive, Kyoten now has a room that doesn’t feel actively incongruent with dropping half a grand.
Though both serve sushi, Kyoten and Kyoten Next Door are fundamentally different. “At Kyoten, I only serve wild seafood,” Phan said. “That means things change day to day and week to week.”
This helps explain the vast price difference. “A lot of people don’t know that farm-raised tuna in Spain goes for $35 a pound, while auction-grade tuna in Japan can go for $300 a pound,” Phan said.
Phan also serves more than just sushi at Kyoten, starting the meal with a few small plates, each more startling than the last. When I visited, Phan coated kawahagi (file fish) in a sauce made from its liver, lending a foie gras-like richness to each bite. The juiciest octopus I’ve ever encountered could probably stand unadorned, but mixing it with avocado adds a captivating creamy richness. Then came the best lobster I’d ever tried, each bite a symphony of juicy and sweet pops.
The sushi doesn’t start until about an hour in, but Phan gets right to business, dishing out toro, the fattiest part of tuna. Many restaurants excel at gastronomical excess, overloading your senses until the pleasure receptors can’t process anything else, but Kyoten deals in desire, that insatiable want of something you lack.
Phan describes the seafood in detail, whetting the appetite before you even see it. Once it does arrive, you almost don’t want to touch it, because you’ll destroy it. But you must, hoping only to appreciate the toro’s seemingly infinite complexity for as long as possible. Yet, the fish vanishes on your tongue at the moment it offers the most pleasure.
This captivating, and perhaps cruel, ritual continues with each course. Shima aji, a striped jack, is firm at first, yet becomes delicate after a split second. Kinmedai, a golden eye snapper, seems mild, then backs it up with a surprisingly savory base.
Phan never looks particularly happy while making sushi, instead appearing just short of obsessed. Watch his hands as he contorts them to perfectly position the fish on top of the rice. Notice how the hands linger for a second to make sure they warm the fish to just the right temperature.
When asked if he wished to serve certain varieties of fish here but couldn’t because the public thought them too strange, Phan pushed back hard.
“If locals don’t like a fish like sardines, it’s probably because the quality isn’t good and it doesn’t taste like it does in Japan,” Phan said. “It’s not like people in Japan just love weird fish. That’s a myth.”
If you’ve always avoided sardines, Phan’s version, called iwashi in Japanese, feels like a revelation. Instead of aggressively fishy, the sardine has a luscious, tuna-like texture, with a forceful flavor that’s also clean and slightly salty. I didn’t know sardines could taste like this.
While Phan stresses sourcing, he also admits that preparing sardines is a “hugely laborious process” that starts with him deboning the notoriously bony fish. Then he cures the fish in salt for eight minutes, rinses it, marinates it in vinegar for 15 minutes and then smokes it.
While the seafood is impeccable, Kyoten’s most distinguishing feature remains the rice. Phan uses a variety called inochi-no-ichi that’s both larger and much more expensive than most sushi rice.
“It’s honestly crazy rice,” Phan said. “It’s three-Michelin-star-in-Japan kind of rice. It’s eight times more expensive than average sushi rice.”
Once it’s cooked, Phan mixes in salt and a variety of vinegar made by an artisan in Tokyo. He also adds in more of the latter than is even traditional in Japan.
“That’s the Kyoten signature,” Phan said. “It’s very acidic and flavorful. I fully acknowledge that it’s not traditional. My place isn’t going to be for everybody.”
While Kyoten has improved in almost every way since opening in 2018, as its entrance displays, not all of its quirks have been ironed out. Phan never bothered to put up signs for either of his similarly named restaurants, so confusion is constant.
When I visited, two guests didn’t realize they were in Kyoten instead of Kyoten Next Door until they’d already ordered drinks. When another party entered, Phan realized the mistake and had to personally escort them next door. “Might be time for some signage,” Phan sighed after returning. Indeed.
It’s clear that if it doesn’t have something to do with seafood, Phan’s not particularly interested. But ask him a question about the food, and it’s almost impossible to get him to stop. Every statement leads to another tangent, and before you know it, a question about sardines has led to an explanation of the long-term sustainability of New England lobsters. Our interview for this review stretched for over an hour, and might have gone longer if my Bluetooth headphones hadn’t run out of power.
When I asked Phan if he felt like Kyoten had improved dramatically since opening in 2018, he gave an unexpected answer.
“I guess a little progression doesn’t seem like a lot to me, because I’m changing every day,” Phan said. “This is what it’s like when a restaurant has a chef that’s always there. If you’re disciplined with your work, your trajectory will always go up.”
I’ve been writing about food for 17 years, and while there is no mathematical formula for creating a great restaurant, having a chef or owner in the building is by far the attribute I notice the most. This is also why I think Kyoten’s price is deserved. Obviously, spending half a grand on one dinner is the definition of luxury, but if you believe dining can be an art form, saving up to experience the ultimate version in town might be worth it. After all, I know what some of you spent on Taylor Swift tickets.
My only suggestion is that if you’re new to omakase, I wouldn’t start with Kyoten. Try Kyoten Next Door first. Save the splurge so you can really enjoy it.
But if you’re a stickler for service and decor, passing is the right call. Toward the end of my meal, I looked down at my feet and noticed a busted electrical outlet. These are the kind of small things critics notice, though we tend to only mention them when a meal goes south, because they may help explain faults elsewhere. But since I was in the full glow of the best sushi of my life, I simply giggled.
Because Phan is right. What’s important at Kyoten is the food, and currently no place in Chicago serves seafood as consistently mesmerizing as this. If Michelin doesn’t give this man at least a few stars, then maybe we shouldn’t pay attention to what a French tire company thinks in the first place.
2507 W. Armitage Ave.
Eat. Watch. Do.
What to eat. What to watch. What you need to live your best life … now.
Tribune rating: Four stars, outstanding
Open: Wednesday to Sunday, 6:30-11 p.m.
Prices: $440 Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday; $490 Friday and Saturday
Accessibility: Bathroom on the first floor
Noise: Conversation friendly
Ratings key: Four stars, outstanding; three stars, excellent; two stars, very good; one star, good; no stars, unsatisfactory. Meals are paid for by the Tribune.