"This is definitely the next chapter," says chef Kent Rathbun inside his new Dallas restaurant Imoto a week before it opened.
The well-known Dallas chef has worked in restaurants all over Dallas and its suburbs, most notably at Abacus, the Uptown Dallas restaurant with which he's no longer affiliated.
And while Tracy Rathbun, Kent's wife, has been operating Shinsei and Lovers Seafood & Market over the years, Kent hasn't had his own restaurant kitchen -- one where diners can see him working the room and chatting in his friendly, chef-boss way -- since his split with Abacus, Jasper's, Hickory and Whitetail Bistro at DFW Airport. (The lawsuit involving Kent and parent company H2R Restaurant Holdings was settled in early 2018, Dallas County records show.)
Imoto is Kent's big return. And cooking Pan-Asian food was his obvious answer.
"This is a longtime dream for me to have a restaurant like this," Kent says. The Rathbuns eat Asian food more than any other cuisine, they say, and both have traveled to Asia. Fans of Shinsei might find a few similarities with Imoto, but the Rathbuns are quick to correct that this isn't a copy of another restaurant.
Imoto opens Friday, June 15, in a neighborhood the Rathbuns think is an interesting new option for Dallas diners.
The Rathbuns took inspiration from Asian countries such as India, Thailand, China and Korea. The menu includes raw fish; cooked dishes; and a sushi case dedicated to "a beautiful array of vegetables" for vegans, vegetarians and anyone desiring lighter food, Kent says.
Executive chef Jennifer Newbold, who was vegetarian for 13 years, says she's excited to showcase vegetables at the new restaurant. Executive sushi chef Jimmy Duke's raw-bar menu includes Instagrammable, colorful fish dishes.
Fans of Abacus' lobster shooters might delight in this: Imoto has tempura lobster shooters with red curry and scallions on the menu.
Kent calls this twist on his famous shooters "more modern."
The menu is mostly shareable, and dishes range from about $7 to $32. The Sriracha butter-roasted king crab atop a black rice cake and the Korean fried chicken marinated in red chile paste with a honey-soy glaze are two of a handful of starters that might interest hungry diners. The recipe for the Thai rare beef, served with Brussels sprout pea tendrils and toasted cashews, is a play on a dish Kent's dad loved to cook.
Some of the ambience of the two-story restaurant in Victory Park -- which formerly was Kenichi -- is inspired by a restaurant Kent visited in the '90s called Buddha-Bar in Paris. It was sexy and unexpected, he recalls. The music changed throughout the evening, transitioning a drinks spot into a dinner spot and then a "full-blown nightclub."
While Imoto won't be a nightclub, Kent says it will have DJs later in the evenings, and they hope to create a restaurant that feels like it evolves throughout the night.
Velvet draperies in peacock blue give the moody space some color. So do the red cranes hanging from the ceiling, crafted by three brothers from North Texas.
The best seat in the house has to be the cozy, peacock-colored booth next to the sushi bar -- a standout in the dining room. Kent also recommends that diners stop a moment at the top of the stairs, where they can feel the buzz from every room at one vantage point.
Kent has opened restaurants in Uptown Dallas, Plano, Richardson and even at the airport. Tracy's restaurants are located at Inwood Road and Lovers Lane, near the Park Cities.
What about Victory Park felt right?
"We're creating something down here that is worth coming to," Kent says. The neighborhood is getting a delicious boost of local restaurants, with some hand-picked by Dallas entrepreneur Tristan Simon and his team at Rebees. "Just on these four corners," Kent says of the intersection of Victory Park Way and Museum Lane, "there's going to be a tremendous amount of things to do here." His colleagues are opening a modern Texas saloon and a Mesero on the same corner; across the street, diners will find a Cinepolis movie theater. To entice young people and tourists to Victory Park, a team of artists assembled a quirky art installation called Sweet Tooth Hotel.
"There's a lot of us who have a lot on the line here," Kent says. "I think it's going to be overwhelmingly successful."
Imoto opens June 15 at 2400 Victory Park Lane, Dallas. Reservations recommended but not required. Dinner only, for now.