Los Angeles chef Phillip Frankland Lee and pastry chef Margarita Kallas-Lee are turning their Austin pop-up Sushi|Bar into a permanent restaurant. The couple’s nightly omakase restaurant will remain in its space within the private dining room of East Austin restaurant Bento Picnic at 2600 East Cesar Chavez St.
Sushi|Bar ATX operates as a sushi counter, offering 17-course meals spanning various nigiri such as Japanese yellowtail paired with corn pudding and bluefin tuna otoro with caramelized pineapple and desserts like roasted soybean sherbert. The fish is flown from various markets around the world including Japan, Australia, and Santa Barbara, and the wasabi is from Japan. Texas products include wagyu, bone marrow, olive oil, and all of the produce.
Lee (a Top Chef contestant) and Kallas-Lee (an Eater Young Gun 2016 semifinalist) opened the Austin iteration of their Los Angeles restaurant in late December 2020. That’s when Los Angeles disallowed all onsite, dine-in service during a big surge of COVID-19-related cases. As a way to keep their staff employed, the couple decided to open the pop-up in Austin. That month, Lee traveled to the city and within three weeks, he was connected to Bento Picnic owner Leanne Valenti, who offered her private dining room space as a venue for the pop-up.
The Austin pop-up was supposed to run through January 2021 — when Los Angeles was scheduled to reopen for outdoor dining services — but reservations were so immediately booked up with a long waitlist (at the end of its third week, the list was over 100; by the end of January, it was over 20,000) that they opted to extend the stay. “We decided we would keep the pop-up going until everyone on the waitlist got a chance to try it,” Lee says. “Here we are, eight months later, still with a full waitlist. We are grateful to say that we’re here to stay.”
Back in California, Lee and Kallas-Lee run hospitality group Scratch Restaurants, which includes New American restaurant Scratch Bar & Kitchen, Magic Bar, Italian restaurant Pasta Bar, and small plates restaurant Leviathan. They first cooked in Austin in 2014, when they ran Scratch Bar as a month-long pop-up. Ever since then, the pair have wanted to open an Austin restaurant. Lee and Kallas-Lee have also moved their home base to Austin to run the restaurant, purchasing a house in the city.
Lee eventually opened the original Sushi|Bar in Los Angeles in 2016 because he wanted to become a sushi chef since he was young growing up in the San Fernando Valley outside of Los Angeles. “I knew as a white man from LA, to open a sushi restaurant, I needed to ask the ‘Whys,’ and do something that would do justice to such an important culinary craft,” he says. He learned as much as he could about Japanese omakase restaurants through reading and talking to chefs. “What stood out to me the most was that sushi chefs would tell the story of their childhood or where they grew up through the flavors of their sushi,” he says. “So that is what I try to ambitiously do; I believe the most authentic thing I could and the best way to honor the tradition and craft was to put the flavors of my childhood on a plate.”
Kallas-Lee was always drawn to desserts. “It was fun to create a dish that is an exclamation point to the end of a meal,” she says. “The dessert rounds out, refreshes, and satisfies with a sweet ending to the meal.” The current offering is a blending of her favorite flavors: a makrut ice cream with black sesame shortbread all covered with a matcha-white chocolate shell.
The head chef of Sushi|Bar ATX is Ambrely Ouimette, who has previously worked at Japanese restaurants the Denver-based Matsuhisa and Cornando, California-based Saiko Sushi as a sushi chef and the head sushi chef respectively.
Bento Picnic owner and chef Valenti opened the restaurant first as a farmers market stand in 2015 and then the physical space in 2018. She expanded with a retail wine shop within the space — Saba San’s — in April 2020. Bento’s regular space isn’t impacted by Sushi|Bar.
Reservations for Sushi|Bar ATX’’s $125 meal book up very quickly — it’s already sold out for the rest of August. Reservations open at 10 a.m. on the first of each month. There are two timed seatings per evening nightly. Coronavirus mitigation measures include implementing plexiglass between parties and staffers wearing masks.