BUCKTOWN — The chef behind a critically acclaimed Logan Square sushi spot is opening a dual-concept sushi restaurant in the Elston Avenue corridor in Bucktown Thursday.
Chef Otto Phan, known for sushi spot Kyōten, is opening Hinoki Sushiko at 1465 W. Willow St. on Thursday at half capacity, per the city’s coronavirus guidelines. The restaurant is opening as the area is undergoing massive redevelopment, with new projects breathing life into the area’s old industrial spots.
The two-story restaurant, which used to house bar and restaurant Fort Willow, offers a “fun, high energy” izakaya lounge with modern takes on Japanese street food, Phan said. Hinoki will also offer the city’s first large-format omakase experience, a traditional Japanese dining style where the chef provides a meal based on availability, budget, taste and seasonality in Edomae-style sushi.
Diners at Hinoki can expect Phan to serve up 18 unique sushi pieces in Edomae-style.
The large-format omakase has reservation-only seating for 40 on the second level, while the bar and lounge on the first floor features a 50-seat izakaya open to walk-ins.
The restaurant blends authentic Japanese traditions with a more laid-back, moody and welcoming atmosphere. The lounge will also have a rotating music collection curated by a local DJ.
“There is a simplicity to [the food], a purest nature about it,” he said.
Gustavo Urbina-Barahona, who has worked at Sushi Hoshi, Katana and Bar Takito, is part of the team as chef de cuisine and Scott Samos, who is behind the drinks at Momotaro, Katana and Izakaya Mika, is the beverage director and certified sake professional.
Phan said he chose the location because of easy parking in the area, the space’s layout — which includes an upstairs patio — and the proximity to his other restaurant and Logan Square, where he lives. It was the first and only space he visited when looking to launch a new restaurant.
“I almost feel like this location chose me,” Phan said. “As soon as I saw it and I said ‘yes.'”
The Elston corridor where Hinoki Sushiko is opening is undergoing massive changes as Lincoln Yards, a controversial $6 billion mega-development along the North Branch of the Chicago River, is set to break ground this year.
And in February, City Council approved plans to convert the old Morton Salt factory, 1357 N. Elston Ave., into office space and a music venue.
Phan said these developments and the area’s gradual shift from industrial to new commercial use didn’t influence his decision to choose the location but he said he hopes the new projects will bring in business to Hinoki and influence other businesses to sprout there.
“The developments around are a wonderful cherry on top,” he said. “ … Hopefully, we can start something special where you do see more restaurants around here … usually it just takes one brave soul. We want to be that brave soul.”
Hinoki joins American-Mediterranean dining spot Ada Street, located two blocks away at 1664 N. Ada St., to the Elston strip.
The restaurant’s name — Hinoki — refers to a tall cypress tree native to Japan that has bright green leaves and yields valuable timber. Phan and his team kept most of the interior design of the former Fort Willow space, which includes a sprawling wooden tree that takes center stage of the downstairs lounge made from 5,000 pieces of recycled wood — an unintended but significant masterpiece that inspired the name, the chef said.
“It’s one of the things that will remain in your mind when you come,” he said.
The pandemic forced Kyōten to turn to private buyouts and take away communal seating, Phan said. Despite city regulations, he said Hinoki’s opening is timed perfectly and he has hope for an end to the pandemic soon.
The pandemic also gave him time to forge new relationships. Phan said he was able to create partnerships with Japanese fishers who needed business when Japan went into lockdown, halting its tourism and closing businesses.
“The fact that I can get [fish] is wonderful because it would usually be reserved for only that local sushi restaurant but now I get access to it,” he said.
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