Chef Yoshi Okai Exemplifies Excellence at Otoko’s Bluefin Breakdown
The rare signature event reminds us why the omakase restaurant is still one of Austin’s most astounding dining experiences
Executive Chef Yoshi Okai is a mad scientist. Often perched at a 90 degree angle, surrounded by soaring rows of white lights, the master knifeman drifts between states of hyper-focus and joyous bouts of laughter as he meticulously breaks down a strikingly large bluefin tuna. It’s experiences like these that remind you that cooking is a fine art, after all.
Otoko, the stunning 12-seat room hidden inside of the South Congress Hotel courtyard, is overflowing with personality and tattoo-laden chefs intently waiting on standby for Okai’s next signal. But the guests are just as engrossed, his conspicuous presence easily commanding the room.
The rise of omakase
Despite the explosion in popularity of omakase restaurants in Austin over the past few years, Okai was on the forefront of the intimate and limited-seat dining movement, opening Otoko in 2016. Although the hotspot would go on to earn much acclaim, presenting a tasting menu that combines Tokyo-style sushi and Kyoto-style kaiseki, it initially felt like a risk.
“Everybody at that time didn’t believe our vision for the tasting menu and said omakase was never going to work in Austin,” reflects Okai. “After 2017, when Food & Wine named me one of the Best New Chefs, we got more guests and omakase really took off. From then to now, even during and after COVID, we are still doing well — going strong. The food is really simple, no gimmicky stuff.”
The last time we had a chance to visit the restaurant was February 2020, right before the world shut down and irrevocably changed Austin’s dining scene. It was spectacular and refreshingly straightforward, with a depth of flavors that stayed with us long after. Similarly this event, which took place this past July, hasn’t left our minds since.
Bluefin breakdowns are back
The Kyoto-born chef began cooking at the age of six, but it was his love of music and landscape architecture that brought him to Austin in 1998. Okai first learned the intensive skill of breaking down fish during his time at Uchi, where he was head chef for many years before joining the New Waterloo team. Since then, he’s completed around 11 breakdowns total, including a particularly challenging demonstration at the Charleston Food + Wine Festival with a fish weighing an unbelievable 720 pounds.
The feat was last performed publicly in 2019, except it was a much larger production held in a bigger space — a surely different feel than the snug view from Otoko’s sleek and minimal dining room. “The larger format made it harder to manage guests, stay tuned into their experience and ensure everyone could see everything going on!” says Okai.
“Funny enough, the bluefin breakdown was actually my first introduction to Otoko and New Waterloo when I moved to Austin in 2019,” explains General Manager Billy Weston. “Seeing Yoshi in action was enough for me to know I was taking the gig.”
He continues, “When Yoshi and I were discussing what we liked, what worked and what the next bluefin breakdown needed, we knew that the intimacy of the Otoko environment — of seeing Yoshi and his team slice up and break down that tuna almost close enough to touch — that component is integral to what makes Otoko so special.”
Weighing in at a little over 180 pounds, the tuna had just arrived from Osaka, Japan. If there’s one thing the restaurant is known for, it’s the thought that goes into every ingredient that hits the plate. This sizable fish was no different, sourced sustainably from Kindai University. As an endangered species, Kindai’s Aquaculture Research Institute has a world-class program that helps repopulate the prized bluefin, using technology to completely farm-raise them through every stage of life.
A one-of-a-kind culinary event
The evening started at the adjoining specialty Japanese whisky bar, Watertrade, featuring a sophisticated list of cocktails curated by bartender Nadia Hernandez. Guests could also add a bottle of Jester King x Otoko OH! Farmhouse Ale to their meal — a unique brew of sansho pepper-infused ale created specially for the restaurant. Imaginative partnerships like these between local and national brands are a regular thing here.
“One thing I’ve come to know working alongside Yoshi these past four (coming up on five!) years now is that he loves a collab,” says Weston. “The Jester King collab came about during a casual conversation with Jeff Stuffings when we were visiting for the Wild World Wine Festival. Yoshi asked to collaborate, Jeff said yes, and there we were.”
“I think that by helping each other, we bring everyone to the next level!” Okai chimes in.
As warm nasu frites are passed around the room, Chef Okai gets to work on the beautiful beast. First, as they say, it’s “Off with their heads!” Relying on just a large knife, saw, scissors and his own hands (not to mention a patient chef team), the tail is next, followed by the collar before delicate strips of tuna skin are thinly sliced away.
There are moments of physical struggle as focus turns to the larger belly and back cuts, but the chef’s joy is palpable through it all. “I like to keep the tradition alive because it looks cool and guests love it! Not many sushi places do it, so it’s another unique thing to offer,” says Okai, whose favorite part of the process is watching the delighted reactions of diners. In the moment, you know you’re witnessing something special, and all are more grateful to be in a city where something like this is possible.
As the marbled fillets are removed and organized, Okai takes more of a back seat, breaking down what’s left while his sous chefs start spooning strips directly from the tuna’s ribs to prep the hand rolls.
The first bite reminds you why you would spend any amount of time packed like sardines into a room normally meant for twelve people. It’s the freshest taste of tuna we could imagine eating. As it melts in your mouth, cracks of salt mingle with earthy seaweed, sticky white rice and fragrant green onions. The humble hand roll is the picture of opulence.
It’ll take around six months for the team to go through all of the salvaged pieces, each with a specifically designated purpose. It’s also sometimes important to not shy away from the truth of what goes into those perfect pink morsels before you, and to be filled with appreciation for both the tireless efforts of the chefs and the marvelous creature they came from.
“Straightforward ingredients, good food, great people”
Chef Okai and the teams at Otoko and Watertrade have continued to stay busy into the fall, resuming their monthly Dram Sessions on October 29 and November 26. The tasting and educational whisky series is led by Billy Weston himself.
When we ask what’s next on the horizon for the artful Austin dining destination, Okai responds in true enigmatic fashion: “I’m working on growing our community and developing relationships with guests and our friends in the industry. We might have something cool happening soon…in the mountains, maybe!”
We’re looking forward to it.