Last Monday I dropped into Chotto, the new Japanese robata bar and izakaya-inspired spot on Steiner Street. It opened two weeks earlier in the space previously occupied by Three Seasons. At 6:30pm, I caught the tail end of a magazine photo shoot that will hit the stands in February. The buzz machine’s definitely humming for this spot early in the game.
Freezing cold inside at this early hour, I opted for a table behind a partition shielding it from the doorway instead of a seat at the bar. A carafe of ice water and a menu soon appeared. In addition a couple of specials were listed on the blackboard, but the basic menu offered more than enough choices for a solo diner.
Instead of ordering any of the cold sakes or shochu cocktails, I asked for a cup of hot water to warm my hands. I started with two items as an initial order. I would have tried more variety but skewers are priced as pairs and not available singly.
Tsukune, $8 for two skewers – Chicken meatballs, homemade teriyaki sauce enriched with raw egg yolk. Liked the teriyaki-egg yolk sauce once I dumped out more than a teaspoon of slimy egg white and could then stir them together to emulsify. Without the sauce and dab of chili powder, the plain tsukune was quite bland on its own with minimal seared or smoke flavor. Also, the finely ground chicken was on the lean and dry side, really needing the egg yolk for richness.
Kani korokke, $9 for three pieces - Snow crab croquettes in a miso-tomato sauce. Quite a bit of crab meat in these croquettes and less of the creamy base than other versions. Somewhat underseasoned and needing the sauce to boost the salting. Good job with the frying, golden brown, light crunchy, greaseless.
Finding the cooking competent enough in these two dishes, I ordered another item from the grill.
Tontoro (pig cheek), $7 for two skewers. Though the menu lists only sea salt and shichimi chili as seasonings and does not mention tare or sauce, the flat squares of tontoro were brushed with sweet sauce obscuring the natural flavor of the meat. I asked the waitress about this errant sauce and requested that my order be salt-grilled without sauce. She said that would not be possible as the pork cheek is pre-marinated. I should have returned it, as the sweet sauce covered up too much of the natural sweetness of pork cheek fat and I couldn’t taste the grill influence.
Despite being full at this point, I ordered one more dish, and it turned out to be my favorite.
Grilled Sanma, $7 - This time I checked ahead to be sure that this whole fish would be salt-grilled with no sauce. Yes, my waitress confirmed. When she brought the plate she advised that the easiest way to remove the bones was to run my chopsticks down along the spine. While the skin was somewhat rubbery, the whole pike was marked precisely and had the scent of the grill. Seasoned simply with shio and careful grilling, the dark and oily flesh brightened and rounded-out with a squeeze of lemon and a dab of peppery, grated daikon colored with sauce.
Prices are higher here in the Marina, on the order of 20 to 30% more than charged in the South Bay for similar dishes.
3317 Steiner St, San Francisco, CA 94123