Paul Qui has a knack for unusual spaces: food trucks parked behind dive bars, back rooms of iconic Austin institutions, a single restaurant serving three different menus. For his next trick, he'll open Otoko, a twelve seat sushi and kaiseki restaurant in the new South Congress Hotel. Again, the restaurant is taking advantage of an unusual space: both Qui and South Congress Hotel partner Jesse Herman say it would be impossible to operate a standalone fine dining restaurant that small. But with the resources of a entire hotel at their disposal, the project becomes possible.
Herman and Qui have known each other for years, and Otoko is inspired by their mutual love of Japanese cuisine. According to Jesse Herman, the goal is to combine Tokyo-style sushi with Kyoto's seasonal kaiseki cuisine, which mixes sushi with cooked dishes. The Austin sensibility will come with the atmosphere as much as the food. "I just ate at Urusawa in Los Angeles, which is one of the most traditional sushi restaurants in the U.S.," Herman says. "There's no music, little communication. A very austere setting. We want to bring an Austin warmth to service at Otoko."
Qui says the restaurant will skew toward traditional Japanese cuisine, but the real appeal of an omakase-style counter is that chefs can do "whatever they want." He jumped at the project because he "missed making sushi," and the ability to focus on such a small group of guests per night was also a huge draw.
Despite Uchi's massive success, Austin is far from a sushi destination, and Qui acknowledges a high-end fish-focused restaurant might raise some eyebrows. "But that conversation is always happening. We get the same fish as restaurants in New York, Los Angeles, or Chicago." Qui says they will source the best of what can be found around the world, whether that means fish from Tokyo, or "sea urchin from Santa Barbara or clams from Maine." Another advantage of omakase is chefs can work with whatever is in season. Qui also says prioritize responsible sourcing.
Otoko will hit what both Qui and Herman consider a more Austin-friendly price point: around $150. That would still make the micro restaurant one of Austin's most expensive nights out, but Qui speculates in New York a similar experience would cost $300 -- $400 in Tokyo. Like Qui's tasting room, Otoko will be ticketed, and Herman expects they will also use Nick Kokonas's Tock system.
In general, the South Congress Hotel could alter the dining focus of the street. The hotel's other two restaurants, a New American bar and grill and California-style cafe, will be a far cry from the pizza, burgers, and Tex Mex that are the street's current destination restaurants. Other big South Congress openings on the horizon are equally casual: a massive flagship Torchy's Tacos and a yet-to-be-revealed La Barbecue brick and mortar. But Jesse Herman sees room for South Congress to grow in a more refined direction, too. "There street is also known for Perla's and Vespaio. I live in the neighborhood, and I think the hotel's restaurants will fill a gap. Otoko, of course, is an anomaly. It's something special."
Otoko will give Paul Qui two fine dining restaurants to oversee, plus his burgeoning empire of East Side King restaurants and trucks. Qui says he will move between all of these restaurants, and thrives on collaboration with his team of chefs. Herman's Violet Crown management group also just added a slew of new business partners. Both restaurateurs have an eye toward expansion and say more collaborations could definitely be in their future. For now, Otoko will open, along with the rest of the South Congress Hotel, this summer.