I'd been following the opening of Oton fairly closely, and when FOY "Fred" emailed me informing me of the opening, the Missus and I made plans to drop by.
I really enjoy the "atmosphere" and set-up of Okan, what I'd usually call Oton's "sister" restaurant, but since Okan means "Mom"and Oton means "Dad", I guess we'll need to call it Okan's "spousal" restaurant? Part of the curiousity for us is what the Restaurant's Ownership/Management/design team would come up with. And I must say, they've done a nice job. From the stylish ingredient display, and "bar":
To the rustic Nabe ("hot pot") rooms. The restaurant is perhaps a bit claustrophobic for Western tastes.
Even though "Robataya" is prominently featured in the name, I was more interested in the the Nabe. Unfortunately, all the booths were booked solid. My first impulse was to return on another day, but the Missus was curious, and we decided to sit at the stylish bar, and have dinner. The menu was a smattering of items, including fried courses, sashimi, and of course Robatayaki. I saw several items on the menu I was interested in, and was read a list of daily specials. Again, unfortunately for us, they were out of several items and ingredients, such as Kamo (duck) and Kushikate.
We started with some Ankimo with ponzu.
This Ankimo was high on the "fishy" end of the taste spectrum. Not a bad thing, as the ponzu and the memji oroshi (grated daikon with red chili) muted the fishy flavors, and cut the richness. I've had worse.
Grilled corn was one of the specials:
The corn was nice and sweet, though the Missus wanted a nice brushing of Tare (sauce) like She had at Raku. At this point,I knew that comparisons with our meals at Raku were inevitable. I think that based on price point (Oton is a bit more expensive) it's hard not to compare. But then, Raku was a James Beard nominated aburiya and robotayaki, and this was Oton.
I wanted to try the Shiokara (fermented squid). This was the smallest dish of Shiokara I've ever had.
Flavorwise, the Shiokara was very mild and tame, the toughness of the strips of squid, along with the absence of the bitterness from the liver and innards of the squid, made me think that perhaps this hadn't been "fermented" long enough. It was no where near as deep in flavor as the version at Izakaya Sakura. It didn't help that the Missus bit down on a piece of the quill bone. If anything, if fermented long enough, this would make for a good "beginner's" Shiokara.
Next up, the Gyutan (grilled beef tongue):
The marinade was decent, and the tongue was cut to a decent thickness for grilling. I'd have preferred more of a "char" on the slices making it crisp on the edges. I didn't catch a hint of Binchōtan, which was a pity. The wonderful smoky flavor Binchōtan adds to whatever it "breaths" on and takes it to another level. I recall the scent of Bincho at Okan, why not here? Or was it that this just wasn't grilled long enough?
Next up, the best dish of the night, the Shishamo Tempura.
In what was possibly the "cutest" moment of the evening, when I ordered this, the young lady proceeded to explain to me what what Shishamo was. After a few seconds, I mentioned that I knew that Shishamo was smelt, and that I've had it many times, which gave her pause, a very short pause, at which time she completed her explanation. She was going to get that description in no matter what!
The Shishamo were fried in a light crisp batter, and wrapped in nori. Crisp, light, and wonderful.
My "go to" item at Yakitori-ya and Robatayaki-ya, Kawa (chicken skin):
What I call "crack on a stick". The portion near the top and in the middle of the skewer were grilled perfectly. The portion at the bottom, which was much too large, was barely grilled, and therefore rubbery. I think this is an illustration of what made our meal a bit frustrating. The decor is very nice, with attention to detail, detail which seems to be lacking with regards to the food we were served.
The Missus wanted to try the Saikyo Miso Black Cod.
The Missus eats this sometimes two to three times a month, and just by looking at this when it arrived, we knew this wasn't going to be very good. First, it didn't look like, nor did it taste like it had been marinated-cured-steeped, or whatever you call it long enough. There wasn't enough of the miso flavor. It also was not broiled long enough, there was very little caramelization. The middle of the slice of fish was barely lukewarm, which would be ok if this landed in a bento, provided it had been cooked through, but not in this situation. The Hajikami Ginger was a nice touch, which again outlined our frustration......attention to detail to everything but the food. As a point of measure, try the Saikyo Miso Black Cod at Sakura. In a traditional Robatayaki-ya, folks sit around a counter much like this, and items are grilled in front of you......lukewarm food is a no-no.
At this point we decided to call it a night and return some other time. Our bill came out to a shade over forty bucks.
We loved the decor, the service was maybe a bit too attentive, but was to be expected since this is a newly opened restaurant. The young folks working here are friendly, helpful, and very nice overall. We also noticed that at least one of the employees was a holdover from Osaka Kitchen which we thought was nice. It appears that they are trying very hard, but this wasn't a very satisfying meal. Of course, Oton just opened, so this may be straightened out in the future. Plus, I haven't tried the Nabe yet....but this is a Robatayaki-ya....... I'm hoping my future visit(s) are a bit more satisfying. Oh, and make reservations for the Nabe rooms.
5447 Kearny Villa Road
San Diego, CA 92123