I’m just back from Tsuke Edomae in Austin and had to tell you about it.
I love great sushi and I’ll travel for it, though with the pandemic it’s been awhile since I’ve had the chance for a Tokyo sushi tour.
When I moved to Austin I got great barbecue, but traded Northern Virginia’s good Asian food in exchange. There’s ok Vietnamese food, pretty good ramen, and mostly bad Thai. The one area where Austin rates in Japanese, though it’s only in the past six years that this has become true.
I was thrilled to the moon when omakase restaurant Kyoten Sushiko opened in 2016. I suggested readers ‘go now’ and I said at the time Chef Otto Phan wouldn’t stay in Austin. It wasn’t a big enough stage. He didn’t. He moved to Chicago serving outstanding omakase sushi there. He’s serving truly amazing fish at a mind-boggling price point now ($440 per person during the week, $490 on Friday and Saturday nights, inclusive of gratuity) – double what he was charging after doubling with his move from Austin to Chicago.
I’ve been a huge fan of Chef Phan’s. My wife and I were regulars when he was in Austin, at one point with his telling us we needed to come a little less often so he could get better in-between our meals. We’ve been up to his Chicago restaurant three times, most recently for our anniversary – which was also re-creating what was the very first trip we’d cancelled due to Covid back in March 2020.
Fortunately Chef Phan’s old Kyoten space in Austin is now Tsuke Edomae, chef Michael Che’s take on traditional omakase sushi. He describes Chef Otto as his Master, serves the same rice, and has access to the same fish purveyor. And it’s at a much more affordable $99++ price point.
Chef Che has some distance to go before offering a similar experience to Phan’s Kyoten, but he’s already doing incredibly well. By one measure – Tock waitlist – he has the most in-demand restaurant in the United States right now.
My First Meal At Tsuke Edomae In Austin
Tsuke Edomae is inside a relatively unadorned storefront in the Mueller neighborhood of Austin. Enter and there’s fake grass on the floor. When your meal is ready to begin, however, you’ll be taken inside to the sushi counter and that’s when you’ve truly arrived. There are 8 seats, a chef, and one server who will bring you drinks and assist the chef in retrieving some items over the course of two and a half to three hours.
The meal is a price fixe omakase for $99. Tax and gratuity are additional. Prior to dessert courses you’ll be given an opportunity to order additional fish items – either repeats of some of the pieces you’ve already tried, or a few that weren’t on the evening’s menu.
I made this booking about three months in advance, so I was really looking forward to it. Reservations will drop usually for a three month period one morning and they’re scooped up almost immediately.
Here Chef Che is presenting the evening’s otoro or fatty tuna before he cuts it. Often in restaurants I’ve been shown food whole and uncooked, and then actually given different food. This was the tuna we’d be having in just a little while.
Here was some of the other fish we’d be served. I think the chef Che is still learning his craft and developing his speed. In order to get pieces of fish out quickly to all 8 guests, he cut several fish courses in front of us in advance rather than cutting pieces and serving them immediately. The rice, however, in each case was fresh and hot (and he replaces the rice every 45 minutes).
Chef Che began the meal explaining how to eat sushi properly, offering several rules. It’s quite common for diners not to be experienced in this, and a decade ago I wouldn’t have been either. He explains that each piece must be eaten within 15 seconds of being presented – that by the time the next guest has a piece it should be gone. He wants you to eat with your fingers in a single bite, and reminds that the ginger is at each place as a palate cleanser between pieces and not to add to the nigiri.
Here’s the squid, and I found the texture to be remarkable. On the one hand the cuts he gave it created a contrast between the outside of the fish and the inside and I enjoyed it, while my wife found it distracting.
I very much enjoyed the chutoro, perhaps my favorite cut of tuna. It’s rich and decadent, but less fatty than otoro.
Chef Che smoked the fatty tuna over a grill before serving it. It basted in its own fat, essentially. He also served a magnificent crab.
I did find that the pieces of fish were sliced thinly overall, logical given the $99 price point. And I would have enjoyed more rice with each piece of nigiri. He uses a special rice only served elsewhere by Kyoten in the United States. But I felt he used probably too much vinegar with the rice so it didn’t hold together as well as Chef Otto’s.
Tsuke Edomae draws its name from the chef’s past endeavors. Immediately before opening his omakase restaurant he ran Tsuke Honten as a Japanese food truck followed by a brick and mortar. He began the omakase with a salad though I’d love it if he brought in some of the noodles from his past endeavor as an homage, which I think might strike a more personal note to start the meal.
The chef plays classical music during part of the meal. He finds it inspirational and he’s clearly passionate. He’ll also turn down the lights. I’m not certain these things are necessary and I even found them a bit distracting, but they communicate his passion and can’t hurt to experiment with. I also found it a miss not to offer finger wipes considering that the nigiri is to be eaten by hand.
Chef Che is not expensive enough given the difficulty of getting a reservation (raise price, he’d make more and still fill up), but the price point makes sense – and makes him popular! – for the fish on offer. He’s closing down Tsuke Edomae for six months starting in December while he studies sushi under a chef in Japan. I am excited to try the restaurant again shortly before he leaves, and then once he returns, in order to see the difference.
Get To Kyoten In Chicago As Well
If you’re in Chicago, or can get a reservation and are able to travel to Chicago, and you can afford it – go to Kyoten. Chef Phan has gotten even better, and his fish has gotten better. He’s no longer doing two seatings per night. There’s just one intimate seating around his sushi counter now, and the meal lasts three hours. His fish is incredible.
Unlike Tsuke Edomae he does not present a menu. It’s a practice he ceased when he was still in Austin. That’s because he changes his mind during the meal about what he’s going to serve – the meal isn’t just what fish was best that day, but what turns out to be best in the moment. It’s based on what is working for that evening’s meal. And it’s based on his inspiration.
He’s always thinking about how things pair and progress and may want to experiment and try something different that he hadn’t even anticipated. This isn’t a rote experience that’s the same night after night both because the unique pieces of fish he can get change, but also because he’s constantly being inspired to try new things.
That also means that some meals or some pieces won’t appeal as much on a given night. We were lucky – one of my favorite pieces that he serves has been Alabama shrimp with a sauce made from the head of the shrimp. He hadn’t served it in two years, and happened to the night we were there.
On the other hand, he didn’t serve his tomago that night. The last time we were there he sent us home with a bag to go with our morning coffee, since he knows that I love it.
The quality of fish at Kyoten – easily $250 food cost per person in food cost – is impossible to beat. That’s not an everyday meal, which is good, because it’s not every day you can get a booking. But if you love sushi, are near Chicago, and can afford it then Kyoten is worth the trip.