By Peter Jon Lindberg
March 12, 2015
Courtesy Otoko

The Top Chef champion unveils his secret plan to further dominate Austin’s food scene—this time with an ultra-luxe new sushi restaurant, Otoko, which opens this summer.

Don’t worry America. It’s O.K. to hate Austin for having everything, what with its killer music festivals, the nation’s best barbecue stand, hipster honky-tonks, and a spring-fed swimming pool that stays magically warm year-round.

Austin even wins at stuff no one expects to find in Texas—like one of the finest Japanese restaurants in the country. Or a hypercreative tasting room offering Filipino-inflected small plates. Or a late-night food truck dishing up fiery, note-perfect Thai food.

Guess what, Austin? You just won again.

This summer sees the debut of Otoko, the newest restaurant from Paul Qui—the badass chef/local hero who played a starring role at all three of the aforementioned Austin restaurants. He’s the former exec chef at Uchiko, chef-owner of Qui, and co-founder of East Side King Thai-Kun, plus the winner Top Chef Season 9. Oh, and he’s got a James Beard award, too.

Dude is inarguably on a roll.

Now comes Otoko. Wrapped in secrecy till now, this may be Qui’s most ambitious venture yet, and certainly the most intimate: an ultra-exclusive, next-gen sushi den with just 12 counter seats. Tucked into a discreetly marked, second-story space at the new South Congress Hotel (opening this July), the minimalist, windowless room will put full focus on the sorcery of the chefs.

For Qui, it’s a welcome return to roots, harking back to his wunderkind days at Uchi and Uchiko, where he and owner/mentor Tyson Cole turned sushi conventions on end with playful riffs and remixes.

“If anything, this will be even more Japanese-focused than what I’ve done at Uchi and Qui,” he says, citing recent trips to Japan as a well of inspiration. But Otoko will hardly be a traditional sushi bar. “I want to play with the format a bit—bring hot and cold dishes into the mix, integrate the sushi throughout, go in more of a kaiseki direction. And we’ll stretch out the tastings according to how long guests want to stay. It definitely won’t be a done-in-30-minutes thing, like at Jiro.”

Service will be omakase-style (no a la carte), with courses composed and presented by the chefs behind the counter. Like the tasting room at Qui, Otoko will use a ticketing system.

“You’ll book and pay for your reservation online,” the chef explains. “We’ll reach out to go over preferences and allergies, then we’ll figure out a menu before you arrive—but with room for improv and surprises.”

Qui expects tickets to range from $100 to $200 a person. The higher price point allows the chef and his crew to work with decidedly higher-end ingredients. Not that cost is a sole determinant of quality:

“It’s really about getting face time with the guys who source the fish,” Qui says. “We’ve built up a great relationship with our buyers at IMP in Los Angeles, who send me the best stuff they can get. And we met the actual buyer on the docks at Tsukiji [Tokyo’s renowned fish market], Mr. Yamamoto-san, who’s amazing. He gets to work at midnight Japan time, so every morning my guy in Austin will call to ask what he’s got for us.”

The idea for a luxe, semi-secret sushi bar came from Jesse Herman, the Austin restaurateur (La Condesa, Sway) and a principal partner in the South Congress Hotel. For Herman, Qui was the obvious choice to run it. “I’ve never seen a chef accomplish what Paul did in just two years—Top Chef, the Beard win, GQ’s best new restaurant,” he says. “The guy is crazily creative. No one’s doing what Paul’s doing.”

Qui admits he was hesitant at first. “I’d always wanted to do a counter, maybe get back to my sushi roots—I just wasn’t sure I’d have time,” he says. “But I couldn’t say no to 12 seats. And Jesse had all the magic words for a chef: tickets only, order the best stuff available, cook whatever you like, price it however you want. It was pretty easy to say yes.”

Look for Otoko to open mid-summer, not long after T+L’s annual Food Issue—with a look at Austin’s blazing-hot restaurant scene—hits newsstands.

Peter Jon Lindberg is the Editor-at-Large for Travel + Leisure.