Intimate Japanese Speakeasy Toshokan Opens at Native Hostel
Step behind the bookshelf where Executive Chef Saine Wong dazzles six diners at a time with a 14-course omakase
By Darcie Duttweiler
Photos by Brian Fitzsimmons
“Toshokan” means “Library” in Japanese, and the super intimate (think six seats at a chef’s counter for only two dining times a night) omakase truly takes that meaning literally. Never mind the fact that Toshokan is tucked behind a bookshelf in Native, but co-owners C.K. Chin and Saine Wong have lovingly created what Wong refers to as “an educational room where people learn about a lot of things.”
Slipping behind the bookshelf — almost as if you’re about to arrive in Narnia — diners are treated to a feast for the senses. Because “omakase” literally means “I’ll leave it up to you,” Toshokan offers a chef’s tasting menu, and the dark and cozy space has one seating area surrounding the chef’s countertop. This is where Executive Chef Wong draws in his guests to dazzle them with 14 bites and entice them into conversations that happen to start — and typically end — with food.
“What’s fun is that people trust me with their meal, so you already create that bond from the very beginning,” Wong explains. “And, then, you take them on a journey, and we talk about travels, music and all other types of experiences.”
When dinner is about to begin, Wong points to a map on the wall with pins scattered throughout the different countries. Some of the pins point to where the ingredients from the night’s dishes have been sourced from, while other pins mark where Wong has traveled, and his menu speaks to specific roads he’s gone down. Right before the pandemic shut down everything, Wong had been traveling the world for about 18 months after quitting his executive chef role in a West Hollywood American restaurant. After setting up a home base in Hong Kong where his dad resides, Wong would pick a section of the world and spend around 30 to 45 days exploring that region. He visited Thailand and Italy. He dined with tribes in third world countries and sailed in the Philippines fishing for his dinner.
“I learned a new appreciation for life, food and ingredients,” Wong says. “And that’s what’s great about this concept — everything is so small that you have to think about every single flavor that goes into a dish and have appreciation for every ingredient. It’s like all my experiences, and everything has led to literally this place.”
Wong met Chin, who’s been in the Austin restaurant and hospitality scene for decades with stints at Kenichi, Imperia, Swift’s Attic and Wu Chow, while he was a chef at Sushi|Bar during the sushi speakeasy’s original pop-up tenure. The two quickly bonded over music, food and their Chinese American heritages and became fast friends. So after Wong left Sushi|Bar, Chin reached out regarding a space available at Native, where he’s also a partner. During the pandemic, the at-the-time hostel “pivoted so much [it] was constantly pirouetting,” according to Chin, and eventually removed the hostel beds and converted the rooms into spaces for rent. Currently Toshakan is in the far back of the hallway, next to a tattoo parlor and floral shop.
Although the small location would dictate the intimate nature of seating times, Chin and Wong admit it was always their intention to create a concept that catered to a very specific number of people.
“There’s been a study that if you have over six people, your conversations split into two or three different conversations. I want to have great conversations, and I want people to interact with each other,” Wong explains. “When there’s more people, it becomes more of a performance than an interaction.”
Wong and Chin say they’ve even seen a whole seating leave dinner and head to the Native Bar afterwards as a group to finish their conversations over a nightcap. And, it’s why the duo is looking forward to their upcoming themed nights, such as Sushi with Strangers, where the omakase will only sell single tickets so that guests can come interact with like-minded people and discuss the food and their experiences without the preconceived notion of impressing a date. Almost like a book club, one might say. Also in the works: Sushi with Swifties, which combines Wong’s other interest in Taylor Swift.
While both Wong and Chin admit that because they only seat 12 diners a night it does become quite difficult to score reservations to Toshokan, they say they aim to keep the experiences fun and comfortable and encourage everyone to come be themselves in the laid back environment. Sure, guests are dining on incredibly high-end ingredients, like Hawaiian kampachi, potato pave topped with a Korean braised short rib, Hokkaido scallops with a Peruvian salsa verde, and aguachile made with botan ebi, along with fancy Japanese whiskies and sakes, but they want guests to feel like they’re dining with a group of friends while having a memorable experience.
“Yes, we have a limited amount of seats, but you have to experience it in this intimate way because it’s a mainline straight to Chef himself, and that’s something that is very rare,” Chin says. “We know we don’t have that opportunity a lot of times, so we want that to be front and center. It’s a love letter to the travels we’ve had, and, at its heart, it’s what we love to do — serve people, show them our experiences, and have them leave happy, satisfied and excited for what’s next.”