Restaurant Review: Ototo Raw Bar and Robota Grill
A welcoming, narrow space warmed by exposed brick and charcoal tinted pendant lights, comfort and ease permeate the latest reincarnation of Ototo alongside subtle whiffs of smoke from the open kitchen. Now featuring grilled dishes and skewers, shared plates, and dont worry, sushi enthusiasts! a raw bar, this prime South Pearl Street corner location offers a more intimate, neighborly ambiance than brother institutions Sushi Den and Izakaya Den.
With a sake pitcher collection cozily adorning the space above the bar and a wall of retractable garage doors, the crisp fall air trickled in and convival chatter spilled out on the leaf-strewn sidewalk the evening of our reservation. A robota restaurant focusing on dishes and skewers slow-grilled over bincho-tan charcoal, Ototo steps away from the sushi that made big brother Sushi Den one of the most long-standing and celebrated institutions in Denver, and opted instead to experiment with shared plates, grilled items, ramen and more.
The shared plates were inspired left us wanting more. A set of fried shiso leaf-wrapped gyoza arrived with shattering tempura enveloping tender nubbins of ginger-spiked pork and cabbage. Each bite was subtly vegetal and crispy, the jagged coating soaking up the perky soy/vinegar dipping sauce a fun twist on classic gyoza. Glassy lobster wontons were tucked with a single snow pea and discernable nuggets of lobster and shrimp, each bite topped with the understated horseradish bite of a gently wilted baby bok choy and perfumed by a drizzling of piquant and savory ponzu otoshi sauce. Nestled in a basket of lightly battered squash and vegetables, the tempura Oregon sardines were fresh and moist with the barest hint oily flavor lingering as we licked our fingers clean.
Unfortunately, the skewers that carry the menu were a bit more lackluster. The Yakitori chicken was juicy but unremarkable, the only a glimmer of flavor found in a few pin-sized dots of kizami wasabi. The tiny skewers were meant to shine on their own, save for a spoonful of funky-sweet cucumber miso maromi on the side serving as palate cleanser, but they wouldve been well-served by a thick, reduced sauce or accompanying element.
The Wagyu beef skewer fared better by virtue of the superlatively tender meat. Well-served by the clean-burning heat of bincho-tan (a high quality, Japanese charcoal made of oak that burns slowly and without putting off much smoke) the pure flavor of the finely marbled meat sings when left to its own devices. The skewer was perched atop a swirl of truffle mashed potato whip, a small accompaniment that made the dish feel more complete than its counterparts.
A fun inclusion on the menu was the selection of organ meat skewers. Cleverly priced at $3, you can afford to experiment with your choice of chicken hearts, livers, duck gizzards and we were surprisingly rewarded by the plump, creamy texture of perfectly grill-marked chicken livers. This dark horse ended up being one of our favorites!
The portion sizes of the skewers cause me to quibble, though. Under the impression they were meant to be shared, the skewers each came with three pieces, the sharing of which can be a marriage-ender at worst, and an awkward half-bite share at best. Id rather have two larger pieces per skewer so they are easy to split, or a clear warning that we should order two to share. Each skewer came with roughly 1-2 ounCes of meat, leaving us ready to go out for a snack even after our multi-course meal.
The winner of the night, surprisingly, was the kobocha squash pudding for dessert. A stand-out amidst a list of mochi items, the gourd-flavored crème caramel posed simply and serenely in a pool of caramelized sugar syrup, garnished with a shiso leaf and small huddle of fruit. Slipping the fork through the burnished cap revealed a dense, luscious treat that managed to wink at fall without deploying pumpkin spice. Perfection!
Service was a touch squirrelly during our visit, if earnest and well-meaning, with a carousel of at least four servers taking orders and delivering poorly-timed dishes at our porch-side table. There was a considerable wait both when ordering drinks and when ordering our food, without much guidance on specialties of the house (though this just gave us more time to peruse the enticing premium sake list).
However, a knowledgeable and unhurried sake sommelier delivered our Kiku-Masamune Taru cedar barrel-aged sake, and took the time to chat about the similarities between bourbon aging and the creation of our smooth, dry selection. Creamy with a quiet aftertaste of Yoshino cedar, the clear concoction was a perfect foil for our lightly grilled skewers and a delicate sip between courses.
The addition of a third pillar to the Sushi Den family is poetic, as the establishments are a family affair passionately run by the Kizaki brothers, Toshi and Yasu Kizaki, and their third brother, Koichi, who hand-selects fish from the market in Southern Japan to be sent daily to Denver.
Meaning little brother in Japanese, Ototo is a worthy extension of their brand, welcoming the Platte Park community in a refreshing, pretense-free manner worth a stop if you are in the neighborhood on a weeknight (though perhaps dont arrive starving). Focus on shared plates, supplement with the more exotic skewer selections, and certainly take advantage of the stellar sake collection for a comfortable, pleasant evening out.