Cafe Society

Heavenly foie gras and oysters served at Ototo on South Pearl

As we were finishing dinner at Ototo Food and Wine Bar, a waiter who'd had my table twice before stopped by to say hello. A true, lifelong professional who'd never planned on having any career other than this one, he'd passionately delivered information about food and wine along with my meals. This night, though, he served up some personal history about South Pearl Street, where he'd lived 25 years before. The crazy costume shop and the secondhand bookstore where he'd browsed, the shop where he'd dry-cleaned his tux ("because in those days, waiters wore tuxes"), the bar where he'd sucked down beers before the Pearl Street Grill even existed, the day when Sushi Den came to the neighborhood.

Toshi and Yasu Kizaki opened Sushi Den over two decades ago (it's now in its second location on South Pearl), and it still boasts waits that stretch to over an hour on some nights. The lines didn't diminish when the brothers opened Izakaya Den across the street and just down the block four years ago; today that restaurant can be packed, too.

In 2009, they bought the building that had housed Seems Like Old Times, and outfitting the old costume shop proved more challenging. Its first incarnation was Den Deli, a counter-service spot offering such Japanese specialties as bento boxes and ramen, packaged for carry-out. By last fall, the brothers had closed the spot for a quick costume change, acquiring a liquor license, remodeling the space and reopening it in November as Ototo.

The name draws from the Japanese word for "little brother" — an acknowledgement of the Kizaki family of restaurants. But this younger sibling already has a grown-up feel: The long, narrow restaurant boasts a sleek, intimate front room built around the bar and exhibition kitchen, with seats along a counter in the hallway that leads to the back dining room. For Ototo, Darren Pusateri, an alum of Frasca Food & Wine and the former executive chef at Izakaya Den, created a menu of small plates as varied in French and Spanish influences as they are in Japanese: Ramen is still included, but now so are sweetbreads and cassoulet. And no matter where the dish draws its inspiration from, it's listed in one of three sections: "untouched," "lightly touched" and "touched," designations intended to differentiate raw fish and carpaccio from pasta and pork belly, and to help a diner course out a meal, eating lighter first and heavier second.

But my first time at Ototo, sitting in that unfortunate back dining room that's like an isolation chamber, the headings made me recoil slightly; I visualized someone with grubby paws digging his hands into my meal. The "untouched" tag is misleading in any case: Even the oysters, the simplest offering on the list, come with both a spicy-sour jalapeño ponzu sauce and an astringent sherry mignonette, which someone had to touch in order to make.

Still, it was easy to forget semantics when the oysters — kusshis and Royal Miyages from the Pacific Northwest — hit the table. After dousing them with sauce, I tipped each glittering shell into my mouth, one by one. As fresh as if they'd just been plucked from a tide pool, the slick, cold bodies slipped through my mouth, leaving the delicate essence of the sea — like the taste of the air on a rainy coast — on my teeth and tongue. Oysters like that should be eaten by the dozen, with just a bottle of white wine to wash them down. And if I'd been sitting at Ototo's attractive bar, watching Pearl Street through the large storefront windows while relaxing in my chair, that's probably what I would have had for dinner.

Instead, I tried several of Ototo's apps, starting with the uni risotto. Pusateri played up the vegetal flavor characteristics of the sea urchin — whose fluid body had been mixed directly into the goldenrod-hued, al dente Arborio — by sprinkling in tarragon, parsley and chives and hitting the finished product with some tart crème fraîche. The dish was surprisingly refreshing, more mild than eating a cut of uni on a pat of rice, which, good or bad, can be reminiscent of diving into the ocean and coming up with a mouthful of sand.

Another surprise, the "egg in a jar," came in an actual glass jar layered with whipped truffled potatoes, crispy bits of Serrano ham, tiny dots of caviar and a soft poached egg. If you stir the concoction right away, you get a rich, creamy dip you use to coat thick chunks of griddled ciabatta, with texture added by a sprinkle of brunoised onions. If you wait too long before stirring the egg, though, as I did during one dinner, it cooks a little too long, congealing to a texture reminiscent of twice-baked potatoes.

Continuing to explore the European side of Ototo's personality, I went for the cassoulet, an enticing-looking dish of fat, caramelized pork belly and a pile of plump beans mixed with mustard greens. Mustard greens are wonderful, strong-flavored leaves that should be employed more often, since they impart bite and bitterness and give a heavy dish a clean finish. But the kitchen had been a little heavy-handed with the greens that evening, and also hadn't cooked them long enough. The result was leathery and overpowering; what should have been a mustard green-kissed cassoulet was actually a mustard green-smacked cassoulet in which the toothsome beans and rich pork belly were almost lost.

To get that taste out of my mouth, I retreated back to the Japanese menu and the ramen that had been a hallmark of Den Deli. Pusateri makes three, including pork tonkotsu, one of my favorites. A nest of curly, elastic noodles swam with slices of tender pork loin and shoots of snappy bean sprouts in the dark, salty consommé; a rich, orange-yolked poached egg floated on top. While I liked the base, I prefer a more gelatin-infused rendition — one that uses more pig than Pusateri did when he created the pork and chicken stock.

I left that first meal wondering what, exactly, Ototo was trying to be.

When I returned with a friend a few days later, we grabbed a table in the front and, after sucking down a few more of those breathtaking oysters, ordered a bottle of Riesling and a dish of pickles and bulbous, briny olives that would have cost eight bucks at Whole Foods — but cost just $4 here. In the summer, when Pusateri is able to add pickles made from vegetables grown at the Kizaki brothers' new farm, this item will be an even bigger bargain.

And then we went straight for the most baffling thing on Pusateri's menu: confit of foie gras terrine. Terrine is a cold preparation of foie, made from layering either seared slices or poached liver into a mold and then chilling it; confit refers to cooking a protein in its own fat. I'd imagined a finished terrine melting away into nothingness after someone had tried to crisp it up in a duck-fat bath — then realized that Pusateri must have poached the liver in fat (hence, confit) and then made terrine out of it. Which meant imbuing foie gras — the fattened liver from a force-fed duck — with even more fat. When it came to the table, I could practically see white crystals of artery plaque spilling out of the sides; a sprinkling of finely chopped port-poached pears on top could hardly balance out the binge. Obviously, the dish was heavenly, like eating a tub of butter with a spoon — only better, as my companion pointed out, because it had meat in it.

From there it was on to more offal. Chunks of tender, spongy sweetbreads had been sautéed and caramelized with tasty pan juice, then plated over roasted cauliflower florets and topped with a creamy, yolky carbonara sauce that, thankfully, had a bigger hit of lemon than most renditions — lest we be required to follow a tub of meat butter with a tub of actual butter. Instead, that citrus gave the plate a misleading lightness, and really played up the sweetbreads.

Pushing back in my chair after a remarkable, if confusing, meal, I was in the mood to talk food with the amicable waiter, who, whether wearing a tux or a pair of jeans, is so certain of his role in the restaurant world. If only Ototo could fit as comfortably into its new costume.

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Laura Shunk was Westword's restaurant critic from 2010 to 2012; she's also been food editor at the Village Voice and a dining columnist in Beijing. Her toughest assignment had her drinking ten martinis and eating ten Caesar salads over the course of 48 hours. She still drinks martinis, but remains lukewarm on Caesar salads.
Contact: Laura Shunk