In a town with no shortage of izakayas–Japanese pubs–the new Chotto stands out for its esthetic. Taking the high road at every juncture, owners Tad and Zerlayna Horie and their chef, Armando Justo, have created a smart and serene little dining room and sake bar with a big selection of small dishes, and a handful of artisanal sakes, all at excellent prices. Justo is a ten year veteran of Yoshi’s and Ozumo when the brilliant Sho Kamio headed the kitchens.
Handsome little wooden tables are pushed close together in front of a gray fabric banquette along one side of the small room, with a bar and counter seating on the other. Light trickles out from behind a wall of recycled tree bark, the same silvery shade of gray as the banquette.
Frying is particularly strong here and kakiage ($6), a raft of julienned vegetables held together by crispy tempura batter, is one of the delights of Japanese cooking and of this menu.
Lots of izakaya food is charcoal grilled. A big square of buttery saba, Spanish mackerel ($7), had melting flesh and papery skin flavored with a sweet miso glaze. The sweet, white flesh of a long, skinny pike called sanma ($7) easily lifted off the bone to be dipped in chile salt and eaten with grated daikon–especially delicious with glasses of Masumi Okuden junmai ($6) or Dewazakura “Omachi” gingo ($7), two of my favorite sakes.
Each pink slice of fire-licked domestic Kobe beef tongue ($7.50) was a chewy/tender mouthful of beefy richness. Another way to get there is with sliced, rare, beef rib eye ($13). Dipping sauces, flavored salts and grated daikon turn them Japanese. And what’s not to like about sliced Kurobuta pork belly ($8), first blanched and then charcoal grilled, velvety but not fatty, with a little smear of sweet miso mustard?
Lots of choice pork and beef parts, carved or skewered, come off the grill, but less represented chicken goes into tsukune ($8), irresistible, soft, chicken meatballs on skewers, textured with bits of crunchy water chestnut. Mix the side sauce of bright orange egg yolk and soy sauce together with chopsticks, and dip each bite.
The Housemade Original Otsunami section of the menu holds some real treasures. Mentaimo (6), a grilled potato salad bound with mustardy Japanese mayonnaise, seasoned with slices of jalapeno and dabs of red chile infused pollock roe is spectacular. Nori tofu ($4), a ceramic bowl of silken tofu in soy infused broth, topped with papery leaves of toasted nori that melt when they hit your tongue, is as elegant and quiet as the potato salad is exciting.
If you have any lingering hunger, share a huge bowl of ramen, the City’s new fetish. Chotto makes regular ($9) and spicy ($9.50) with chile spiked broth. Go for the regular so you can taste the richness of the cloudy, pork- infused broth underscored by many slices of roasted pork. But the best part is the clump of noodles, curly and chewy, exactly cooked.
A meal of Chotto’s small bites add up to big satisfaction. I like the way the chef incorporates excellent American products, especially pork and beef, into Japanese culinary vernacular, to come up with his own version of San Francisco comfort food.
Chotto, 3317 Steiner (near Lombard), San Francisco
Contact: 415 441-2000; www.chottosf.com
Hours: Sunday through Thursday 5:30 to 11 p.m.; Friday and Saturday 5:30 p.m. to 1 a.m.
Price range: $4 to $13
Recommended dishes: kakiage (crispy vegetable fritter); mentaimo (grilled potato salad); gyutan (grilled kobe beef tongue); saba (grilled Spanish mackerel); nori tofu; ramen
Credit cards: All major except Discover