It's hard to get a second chance in a business where, statistically speaking, close to half of your peers are doomed to failure. But everybody loves a good comeback story, especially one about a good restaurant. Ototo closed on South Pearl Street in 2012, but the Den Family held on to the empty space as an agonizing reminder of a third possibility from the minds that conceived sibling restaurants Sushi Den and Izakaya Den. The born-again little brother is indeed a bit less expensive and more casual than either of those restaurants, and also less globally-influenced than it was four years ago. And in the Den Family tradition, Ototo offers an epic happy-hour menu that reads like an engraved invitation to heaven.
It's easy enough to see the culinary differences between Ototo and the other restaurants on the block (there are available seats in the dining room, for one), but the menu is unmistakably Japanese. The new innovation here is the bincho-tan charcoal grill, which provides an assortment of seared tapas and skewered meats. In addition to the flames of the grill, there's a beautiful glowing raw bar, stuffed with ice and strewn with crab legs and shells. It's a space that's pitched well for a low-key sake bar. Marvel if you will at the enchanting sake list placed at your table, but there's only one house variety available for half-price at happy hour, served Wednesday to Sunday from 4:30 to 5:30 p.m. and 9:30 to 11 p.m. from Wednesday to Saturday.
Luckily, that sake a creamy, warm junmai served in a ceramic decanter, a fantastic sip for $4. Glasses of wine and drafts are also $4, with a $1 discount on well drinks. Sake is the star but there's also a fine list of Japanese whiskies and a neat wine selection. But I had my mind devoted to the food since the first time I pulled up Ototo's happy-hour menu.
If you're the kind of person who prefers tempura and ramen to dynamite rolls at the sushi bar, welcome home. There are a lot of heavy dishes with a light touch, like the fried eggplant with a honey-sesame miso glaze ($5), or unconventional offerings like bacon-wrapped, bincho-grilled Enoki mushrooms ($5). I started things off a bit more traditionally with some gyoza ($5) —if this place gets gyoza wrong, its goose is as good as fricasseed. Good thing that these dumplings were perfectly seared on the bottom and filled with a sweet/spicy pork blend that came alive with a dip in a boozy accompaniment of sake, rice vinegar and mirin rice wine. It's a treat that's familiar to Sushi Denizens, but those dumplings are a bit more spicy and complex.
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I wanted one of everything, but this was my moment to compartmentalize and set my battle plan. I dived for a plate of Kurobuta pork sausage ($7), one of the more expensive dishes at happy hour, and soon regretted it. As much as my server emphasized how much was made in-house, these little sausages held nothing that distinguished them as coming from this house. Rubbery casing, limp flavor — where are the fat, rich links I love? At least the miso slaw and spicy mustard alongside were there for added color and commentary. Continuing the artery-clogging theme, Japanese fried chicken ($7) got me salivating as soon as it hit the table. Dark meat chunks. Batter that melds with the chicken rather than flakes off. Tangy Japanese Thousand Island dressing. This is a fine instance of JFC, one the most welcome food trends in Denver.
Throw in an evening of unfailingly excellent service, and I was surprised to see few rough edges in a restaurant so young. Then again, Ototo is part of a group that's been defining hospitality on South Pearl for 30 years, so perhaps this confidence is a given. The fare and presentation are so far from the original Ototo described in Laura Shunk's 2011 review that I can't be sure what role it will take among its predecessors, but another good happy hour is always welcome at the family table.
Perfect for: South Pearl Street is home to a First Friday Artwalk that's a bit less crazy than the one on Santa Fe Drive. A bit more delicious, too, as you can handily fit in an Ototo happy hour before or after the event, which runs from 4 to 8 p.m.
Don't miss: If you have the foresight to save room for dessert during the slim afternoon happy hour or late-night hours, do so. The selections are only $5 and change frequently enough that you have to interrogate your server to find out what the goods are. Mochi ice cream ($7 outside of happy hour) was not the most creative dessert available that night, but it was what the previous gluttony demanded — and each pouch of mango, strawberry and green tea tasted true to its inspiration.