ATXReview

photo credit: Toshokan

Toshokan review image
8.3

Toshokan

$$$$

807 East 4th Street, Austin
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The first time we read Harry Potter as kids, we carried around a stick for three weeks, quietly whispering “alohomora” as we pointed it at every locked door in the house. We like to think it was our technique to blame—and not our lack of magic—for the doors that never opened, but we’ll leave that up for debate. Now that we’re adults, we know that magic isn’t real. But every once in a while we experience something that brings back that same childlike sense of wonder. And it’s a feeling we felt once again when we stepped into a dining room hidden behind a bookshelf (no spells needed) at Toshokan, a small, six-seat omakase sushi spot in an East Austin hostel serving an exciting mix of classic and creative bites. 

Richard Casteel

Toshokan review image

The whole experience starts with a welcome drink in a large hallway between the hostel bar and a tattoo shop. Eventually, the bookshelf at the end of the hall opens up and you’ll make your way into a secret room the size of Harry Potter’s cupboard under the stairs, with decorations ranging from cute Japanese toys and old bottles of whiskey, to Taylor Swift memorabilia and an acoustic guitar. Most nights you’ll hear a soundtrack of old school hip hop, unless you show up on one of the monthly-ish theme nights with one-offs like Star Wars and Mean Girls or the semi-recurring “Sushi With Swifties,” for which you can probably already guess the soundtrack. It’s a place that tries not to take itself too seriously, despite requiring a pretty seriously-priced (and hard to snag) ticket for entry. 

A meal here consists of about 14 courses that are mostly nigiri, but it gets broken up with a few small plates here and there so that the whole thing doesn’t feel like a sushi onslaught. About half of the courses are pretty classic—with minimal garnish—but for every piece of otoro with soy and wasabi, you’ll also get some nigiri topped with cured egg yolk shavings or bruleed tangerine slices. A meal here ultimately falls into the “new-school nigiri” category, but where Toshokan differs from some of its contemporaries—like Sushi Bar or Sushi By Scratch—is in the restraint. Even when Toshokan does get a bit creative with the garnishes, there are never a half dozen different toppings competing with each other. The fish is ultimately the star of the show.

Richard Casteel

Toshokan review image

Subtlety does go out the window at times, with rich dishes like torched bone marrow nigiri served with shiso chimichurri, but it’s decadent in a way that works when it’s limited to only a few bites spread throughout the night. And at the end of the meal, they bring out a giant wheel of chocolate and melt it tableside, with a blowtorch, onto a scoop of toasted marshmallow ice cream—a s’mores version of raclette. It serves just as much as a sweet finish as it does a reminder of what Toshokan is all about: excellent, creative food in a fun environment.

Richard Casteel

Toshokan review image

Leaving the secret room behind the bookshelf after all those hours feels a little like taking your nose out of a book for the first time after an all-nighter and realizing you’re not, in fact, in a whimsical castle in Scotland. You’re in a hostel in East Austin, but for just a few hours, it’s easy to get caught up in the magic of it all. At least until you get the bill, but we’re sure there’s a spell for that somewhere. 

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Food Rundown

Richard Casteel

Toshokan review image

Omakase

The menu changes regularly, but you can expect a good mix of traditional and non-traditional nigiri, plus a few small plates that are mostly inspired by the chef’s travels. That means you’ll get bites like a rich otoro nigiri simply dressed in soy and wasabi—allowing the fish to shine—but you’ll also get an excellent plate of buttery Hokkaido scallop with tangy Peruvian salsa verde. If you’re still hungry at the end, you’ll have the option to add on a couple of extra (new) bites, or revisit any old favorites.

Drinks

Sake is available by the glass or by the bottle (maybe even by the case, if you ask nicely), and there’s a pairing option that includes a good balance of light and crisp sakes, along with some funkier ones that clearly grew up listening to a lot of James Brown. And if you’re not in the mood for the sakes or the handful of Japanese whiskeys they have behind the counter, they can have the bar at Native Hostel whip you up just about any cocktail. Though we can’t promise to hold back our judgment if you pair your nigiri with a spicy margarita.

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