Chotto, SF

Since returning from Singapore, I haven’t made any effort to get any of the food that reminded me of home (except for the occasional instant ramen)… until Chotto.

My first experience with an izakaya was at Shunjuu in Singapore, which was stellar. Who can say no to fabulously barbecued food in tiny portions on skewers? Granted, those tiny portions were expensive considering what they were, but this concept is based on high-quality ingredients and expert barbecuing, with the added bonus of promoting portion controlHAHAHAHAHAHAHA. Interestingly, this concept does not exist in American cuisine.

So Chotto.

chotto_18

On a Friday evening, Chotto was jumping. Also jumping were my ear drums – SO, SO NOISY was it in there, and filled with a young crowd.

Inside the quaint, cozy space was a lot of dark wood tables and glowing walls that exuded a young, hip, trendy vibe. It was a little cramped in there, but the servers managed to maneuver around guests and each other smoothly.

chotto_01

We would have had a good first impression of Chotto had the host not promptly forgotten to give us the drinks menu as soon as he said he would bring it to us. We had to ask a very nice server named Tricia, who did a much better job of attending to our needs than the host did of being a host.

Not a sake fan, I ordered the Yuzu cocktail ($9) anyway.

Mmmmmmm…

The concoction of sake, yuzu juice, sparkling wine, and honey was addictive. The presence of sake was unmistakeable, but did not overwhelm me at all. It was sweet and tart and sparkling and I could’ve had four of them… and then I made the mistake of squeezing the lemon wedge into it and subsequently made it very sour.

Oh, Jenna.

The food menu has five sections: Raw Bar, Salads/Sunomono, Small Plates (some of which were actually kind of large, such as the kara-age), Kushiyaki (that’s the skewered yummies), and Grilled (un-skewered yummies).

There is also an option for Chotto Ramen… which YOU SHOULD ABSOLUTELY ORDER, but I’ll get to that later.

It’s very easy for ordering to get way out of hand. Luckily, Tricia recommended two to three plates per person, to which I said, “Psssssh I can totally eat more than that.

HOLD ON TO YOUR STOMACHS, FOLKS. TEN. DISHES.

To start, my friend and I enjoyed the delightful saba ($7). The fish was obviously fresh and of high quality. The skin was crispy and slightly charred, the flesh firm and rich.

Saba (mackerel)

I personally enjoy a little char on my food, particularly fish skin, increased risk of cancer be damned.

The kamo ($8.50) was unreal. How can duck breast feel like this? I wasn’t even sure it was duck! It was strangely moist and succulent and tender. If you’d told me it was pork, I would’ve believed you.

Kamo (duck breast)

This diner is still skeptical. It was delicious, but also suspicious.

Moving on.

I had never considered that pigs even had jowls. Naturally, given the opportunity, I asked for it.

Tontoro (pork jowl)

As you can probably guess of pork jowl ($7), there was no flesh here. It was just charred skin… and it was amazing. It felt like you were eating pork belly, but it wasn’t fat, so I felt super-good about eating it. *smug face*

Holy pork jowl

What did it taste like? Well, a little bit of soy sauce and not much else, but that barbecue char…

CRANK THE HEAT UP!
CRANK THE HEAT UP!

Moving on.

I have never eaten fluke before. Naturally, I ordered it.

The fish itself has no discernible flavor – just cold, gelatinous nothing something though its neutrality made it a nice vehicle for ume shiso vinaigrette and pink peppercorns.

Hirame (fluke) carpaccio

Did the fluke ($14) really have to be sliced that thinly? Reeks of stinginess to me.

Hirame (fluke) carpaccio is deceptively flavorless.

I had a big problem with the uni hotate ($12). In theory, it’s fabulous: raw sea urchin sandwiched between two slices of raw scallops, topped with tamari soy.

Uni hotate (scalop and sea urchin sandwich)

The dish suffered from two things:

  1. There was no warning of this cloyingly sweet fruit. It easily overwhelmed the scallop and tamari soy sauce.
  2. The sea urchin tasted like a public toilet.

I asked my friend for his opinion and he said it wasn’t fresh. I refuse to believe that it’s that simple. IT TASTED RANK.

Uni hotate (scallop and sea urchin sandwich)

I had my suspicions when I noticed the weird, squishy texture of the uni, as though they were very old.

Ew.

Uni hotate: looked better than it tasted.

The domestic Kobe beef tongue ($7.50) is a must-try! Seared on the outside and juicy and tender in the middle, this is nowhere as gross as newbies to exotic body parts might think it is.  The accompanying shichimi chili was also excellent – sweet and with a kick.

Gyu tan (beef tongue)

I refueled with the Pineapple and Ginger cocktail ($8), which, like the Yuzu cocktail, definitely contained a fair amount of sake, but the dryness of the sake was well balanced by the pineapple and ginger beer. I’m glad the bar didn’t go overboard with the ginger beer.

Pineapple & Ginger cocktail

If you like cocktails that are sweet and only a tad dry, you’ll like this one.

The fried chicken wings ($5) (there are two versions – the Small Plates one and these) weren’t remarkable. No special seasonings, but again, it was beautifully barbecued and perfectly done all the way through.

Teba (grilled chicken wings)

Among the three sauces that came with the grilled mixed vegetables ($6.50), the daikon miso was the most overpowering and least appreciated. The other two – a jalapeño aioli and a ponzu sauce – were superb. The former was best with the brussels sprouts, the latter with the fried sweet potato.

Yasai (grilled vegetables)

I guess I can’t really appreciate the value of this particular dish because, compared to similarly priced small plates, this was rather small.

So I promised to talk about the ramen. ORDER IT.

Miso tonkotsu ramen

The broth of the Miso Tonkotsu Ramen ($12) was so rich and flavorful and thick. It’s definitely more soupy and less brothy. The downside of this dish was the ramen hadn’t been stirred well during the process of cooking and, as a result, a big clump of noodles sat at the bottom of the bowl. It is a rookie mistake and it’s difficult for me to let it slide.

As for portion size, it’s big enough for three to share if you’ve ordered many other dishes like we did.

Last, but not least, DESSERT. (As if I would ever skip it! Psssssh!) We were not provided with a dessert menu, but rather, Tricia informed us that we had a choice of fried banana with coconut ice cream and fried sweet potato balls with black sesame ice cream. Banana being decidedly un-Japanese, we went with the sweet potato balls ($8).

Sweet potato donut holes with black sesame ice cream

This is another must-try! I did not detect any sweet potato at all, but as far as fried dough balls go, these were amazing. The inner texture was smooth and pretty much like a denser donut hole, and the exterior was perfectly and evenly browned and sweetened with honey. The black sesame ice cream wasn’t too sweet and tasted just as it should. It’s nothing special, but it was good.

Are you hungry yet? If you are, make an early reservation to make sure that the dishes you want are still available. (When we got to Chotto around 8 o’clock, they were out of the oyster mushrooms. Sad face.)

Street parking in that area was impossible, so drive over to the metered parking garage  on Pierce Street between Chestnut and Lombard (just on the other side of the block that Chotto is on).

THE VERDICT:

I can see why this Chotto was so popular. There really is something for everyone: plenty of unusual preparations for the adventurous and familiar ones for everyone else, as well as a variety of cold, warm, and charred dishes to mix up your meal. The cocktails here were also excellent and range from very dry to very sweet and light.

If I were to return to Chotto, I would probably stick to the barbecued skewers and the cocktails.

Japanese cuisine tends to be expensive and Chotto is no different. If you can stand the volume level, I highly recommend this spot for your next izakaya experience.

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