To hear Sarah Cook talk about the Kyoten Sushiko’s May 1 reopening, it’s clear she regards the concept as far more than just a place to grab a bite. Degreed in philosophy and ancient language, the chef is just as likely to talk about the energy of the space as she is to discuss a specific sushi technique.
The unconventional language is fitting because Cook came to run the once-shuttered Mueller restaurant in an unconventional way. Before chef and owner Otto Phan packed up in October 2018 to chase a Michelin star in Chicago, Cook had an unforgettable dining experience.
“What struck me was the immediacy of him making the pieces and handing it to you,” says Cook, noting that in many restaurants that serve omakase, or chef’s tastings, bites are only passed out when the pieces are finished for all guests.
Thus began a whirlwind that included Cook training at Phan’s highly regarded new restaurant (recently named a James Beard Award semifinalist for Best New Restaurant, among other acclaim). Although Phan is still the owner, he has given his protégée free rein to make Kyoten her own — right down to the decor.
Cook says she has changed the space significantly to make a “much more inviting and elegant space.” Gone is Phan’s austerity, replaced by live plants and antiques. The new chef designed the space herself, including knocking down a wall.
She also made some changes to the service model, scrapping the more casual lunch to allow plenty of time to prep for the evening omakase.
“We are not doing lunch in order to focus on creating the best dinner experience possible,” she says.
Fans of the restaurant shouldn’t expect a radical change in cuisine. The tasting still focuses on 75-percent nigiri, only slightly veering from Phan’s minimalistic use of fish and rice.
But Cook has introduced more plants to the ingredients list. Many are sourced from Hausbar Urban Farm, but Cook is also utilizing the space’s natural light for container gardening and a hydroponic system will eventually yield even more vegetables and herbs. The goal, Cook says, is to be “hyper, hyper, hyper seasonal.”
“It’s not what’s best in spring,” she explains, “but what’s best today.”
Still, she shares with Phan a devotion to presentness, exemplified in the restaurant's slogan: “Be here now.”
“We are all about harnessing the energy of the moment in a way that no other format of a restaurant could deliver," Cook says. “It really does feel like a magical place."