Izakaya that’s Casual but Stylish
3317 Steiner St. (between Lombard and Chestnut), San Francisco
Open Sun.–Thu., 5:30–11 p.m.; Fri.–Sat., 5:30 p.m.–midnight
Reservations, major credit cards accepted
Chotto opened last December, riding the current wave of Japanese-style izakayas opening up around town. Izakayas are casual bars specializing in small bites, especially if they’re grilled or skewered, and Chotto takes it to a premium level with its contemporary settings and innovative dishes.
This all fits in perfectly with the Marina neighborhood, where Chotto took over the spot previously housing a fancy Vietnamese restaurant. I dropped by for dinner with my friend Ken on a recent Friday night, and while the restaurant décor is definitely stylish, it also felt cozy and fun.
The layout, which features a large bar section, does seem smaller than when the space was Three Seasons. And it’s especially evident by the two-tops lined up along the wall. The tables are so close you feel like you’re sitting in one long communal table.
Izakayas are like the place for happy hour in Japan, so there’s a lot of eating and drinking. So we started with some cocktails. I ordered the Sochu Cocktail ($7), made with the Japanese distilled alcohol (made from rice or wheat) known as sochu and cucumber juice. (I’m a big fan of cucumber juice, and love it in any kind of cocktail.)
As for the menu, Ken and I ordered separately because Ken’s a vegetarian who eats seafood while I was going to hit the meats. But of course like a lot of places that sell small plates around the city, our server must have thought we were sharing because the plates came in random order and it turned out that much of the first few plates were for me while Ken was left just drinking.
So here’s what we ate in the order they arrived:
First up was my order of uni hotate ($12), a beautifully plated dish of raw Hokkaido scallops, with uni or sea urchin sandwiched between the scallops and dressed with shiso, olive oil and tamari soy. While the uni was creamy and luscious, the scallops did have an odd off taste to it, almost metallic. So maybe it wasn’t the day’s freshest scallops, but the overall dish was saved by its presentation and the lovely tamari soy sauce.
Just as beautiful was Ken’s order of kanisu ($8) or salad of rock crab meat, ginger, and cucumber served in a champagne glass. Ken enjoyed the salad, which was light and fresh with a lot of crab meat.
This was my meat heaven, which was the kushiyaki sampler ($14), four skewers that showcase some of Chotto’s popular charcoal-grilled skewers. On this night, my sampler included a skewer of kamo (duck breast), gyu (beef ribeye), tontoro (pork jowl) and negima (chicken thighs).
All the skewers were cooked slightly on the rare side, even the chicken thighs (although it wasn’t raw). But that meant the meat was tender and juicy, and it was salty from the searing but not super salty. My favorite probably was the pork jowl (with its slight charred fat) and the chicken.
Then came my final order, which was a salad that I actually thought should have come before my sampler. This is the hatake sarada ($8), a warm salad of frisee and Japanese mushrooms, crispy bacon and topped with a poached organic egg. The salad was dressed in a garlic-ponzu dressing.
The salad was beautiful with lots of frisee that was a bit difficult to eat because of the size, and while the egg was perfectly oozing when I released the yolk, I didn’t really get why it was needed on the salad. There were also a lot of bacon chunks that settled to the bottom of the bowl.
Here’s an order Ken and I did share: the yaki onigiri ($6). Onigiri is the Japanese rice ball and Chotto’s version is grilled rice dressed lightly with soy sauce and stuffed with a bit of umeboshi, or plum. The rice ball is served with nori that you use to wrap the ball and then eat. (Keeping the nori or seaweed separate allows it to remain crispy.)
The onigiri was both our favorites. It had the perfect char from the grill that made it also slightly crunchy but still soft inside and filling.
While I was pretty much done with my dishes after the onigiri arrived, Ken was just starting. So after the long wait from his salad, he finally got his order of yasai ($6.50) or seasonal vegetables served with three different sauces. Ken especially loved the charred Brussel sprouts. He wasn’t sure what the other green was.
Ken’s last order was the ebi tempura ($7.50). Tempura are deep-fried foods, and Chotto makes its shrimp tempura with black tiger shrimp and serves it with an unagi sauce. Ken said it was fried perfectly, making it taste light and crunchy.
We decided to end our dinner with a dessert, tempted by the ginger crème brulee. The brulee had a nice caramelized top to crack into, but the custard inside was on the liquid side, and not really thick. It was almost like soup, even though it had a nice ginger flavor. It was topped by some candied ginger that was a bit soft and odd to me.
Despite a few minor misses with the scallops and crème brulee, overall both Ken and I enjoyed our orders. And it’s surprising that Chotto’s menu is under the helm of a native from Madrid, Spain – Chef Armando Justo, who got his Japanese culinary chops working at some of the city’s best Japanese restaurants like Ozumo and Yoshi’s.
I’m impressed by the plating of dishes coming out of Justo’s kitchen, but the food does seem to be on par with some other good izakayas closer to me. So while I won’t necessarily go all the way to the Marina for my izakaya fix, Chotto is a beautiful spot and has staked the claim for its izakaya territory in that part of town.
Single guy rating: 3.75 stars (stylish skewers)
Explanation of the single guy's rating system:
1 star = perfect for college students
2 stars = perfect for new diners
3 stars = perfect for foodies
4 stars = perfect for expense accounts
5 stars = perfect for any guy's dream dinner
Thursday, August 11, 2011
Izakaya that’s Casual but Stylish