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Chotto – New Izakaya in San Francisco’s Marina

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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.
http://www.flickr.com/photos/melaniew...

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.
http://www.flickr.com/photos/melaniew...

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.
http://www.flickr.com/photos/melaniew...

Prices are higher here in the Marina, on the order of 20 to 30% more than charged in the South Bay for similar dishes.

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Chotto
3317 Steiner St, San Francisco, CA 94123

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  1. I'm glad the sanma at Chotto was good. I love oily fish like mackerel, sardine, and sanma, but when served grilled say in Japanese restaurants, they are never fresh. Good sushi houses like Sushi Tomi once in a while will inform their customers that they will be grilling fresh mackerel/sardine/sanma, and that's never to be missed!

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    Sushi Tomi
    635 W Dana St, Mountain View, CA 94041

    Chotto
    3317 Steiner St, San Francisco, CA 94123

    3 Replies
    1. re: vincentlo

      When I was doing my due diligence investigation before ordering the sanma, besides the sauce issue, I had asked my server to check if the fish was fresh or frozen. She said the kitchen said it was fresh. The sanma wasn't particularly vibrant and I don't know that i've had fresh sanma before to be able to judge for myself.

      1. re: vincentlo

        Vincent, have you tried the grilled hokke at Sebo? Here’s more about hokke, also known as atka mackerel or arabesque greenling.
        http://www.bfh.jp/en/theme/theme_sear...

        I dropped in early on the 9th and had a seat at the counter where I could watch the three chefs choreography knocking out dishes in the tight space. The night’s Izakaya menu for Sunday, 1/9/2011
        http://twitpic.com/3omews

        Goya chanpuruu, $7 - Bitter melon, egg, tofu, katsuobushi, bean sprouts, scallions, onions. Much lighter made with smoked bonito shavings instead of pork, and the salting was perfect to “sweeten” the bitter melon in this Okinawan dish. I liked this dish a lot and it felt very cleansing, just what the doctor ordered. However, a full serving was too much bitter flavor for one person to consume in a sitting and I took most of it home with me.
        http://www.flickr.com/photos/melaniew...

        Kaki chige, $10 – Korean-style hot pot with oyster, kimchee, carrots, daikon, okra, fishcake, scallion, onions. The soup and vegetable base was simmering on a burner on top of the sushi bar. Then an order’s worth was heated with the raw oysters until the mollusks were exactly on point and custardy in texture.
        http://www.flickr.com/photos/melaniew...

        I enjoyed the first two dishes greatly and was about to leave. But having taken note of the many orders for Hokke, $10 - Atka mackerel (1/2), I had to try that too. Hokke is cured/marinated in shoyu and mirin, turning a deep rusty orange color, then dried for an extended time to release the oils to the surface. The slab is grilled until bones and skin are crispy. Extremely rich in flavor and texture, I loved the contrast of the velvety smooth, oily flesh against the crackly bones. When I have this again, I’d immediately pull off all the skin so that it doesn’t soften from steam emitting from the flesh.
        http://www.flickr.com/photos/melaniew...

        Then a few days later I tried the Grilled jack mackerel hiraki, $8, at Gaku in San Jose. Served skin side up, it started out crispy but the skin softened soon. Oily, buttery textured, rich flesh, this was very delicious as well and perfectly cooked with the merest hint of binchotan charcoal fire wafting up from the plate.
        http://www.flickr.com/photos/melaniew...

        After tasting those two excellent examples of grilled oily-fleshed fish, I have to say that I was overly enthusiastic about the Sanma at Chotto in my original post. While it was my favorite dish of my sampling at Chotto, Sebo and Gaku’s grilling skills and cooking across the board are in a different league.

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        Sebo
        517 Hayes St, San Francisco, CA 94102

        Chotto
        3317 Steiner St, San Francisco, CA 94123

        1. re: Melanie Wong

          Thanks for the Sebo Izakaya reminder. I'm still not ready to go back for sushi, but my izakaya meals there were all great and much more affordable.

      2. I went recently as well.

        I thought the flavors in general were too subtle. The sushi we had were the best thing we ate. Really fresh uni, ankimo, and shima aji.

        The skewered chicken thighs and wings were pretty nice too though, with the bincho charcoal flavor coming through, especially with the wings.

        The seared duck breast was nicely cooked and sliced perfectly thin, but the flavors were a bit one note and it's served cold.

        The grilled saba on the otherhand was delicious, perfectly cooked and juicy.

        The ohitashi (spinach with bonito flakes) in yuzu was nice and refreshing.

        The kani korokke was a miss for us, as the batter was too thick and hard. We thought the filling was a bit too creamy. I'm guessing the kitchen worked out the kinks on this dish.

        The beef tongue, cooked medium rare was okay. The menu stated shichimi as an ingredient but it didn't come through so we asked for more. It was served with lime and a fermented bean paste that didn't pair too well with the beef. The beef itself needed a lot more salt.

        The pork belly skewer was also a miss, meat was way too tough.

        The suzuki (striped bass) was cooked nicely with a crispy skin and moist meat, but way underseasoned.

        We ended with a plain onigiri, which didn't have anything inside so we added the suzuki, shichimi and soy sauce to it.

        The shochu and sake cocktails were fine, the server explained the drinks were on the light side, as to not overwhelm the subtle flavors. Sake list itself was on the short side. The also have beer and wine, but the glass of Sauv Blanc we had didn't pair too well with the food.

        We were disappointed in the lack of yakitori on the menu, ie. gizzards, liver, chicken skin, but I guess it's hard to expect that at an izakaya in the Marina.

        Service though, was really professional and knowledgeable.

        For izakayas, Sozai and Ippuku are my favorites.

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        Sozai Restaurant
        1500 Irving Street, San Francisco, CA 94122

        Ippuku
        2130 Center St, Berkeley, CA 94704

        1 Reply
        1. re: DezzerSF

          I agree that the kitchen has too light a hand with salt. For the dishes I tried, it tries to make up for this with the sauces. Too much reliance on sauce to give the main ingredient personality.

        2. Hearing some positive mentions of the ramen stock at Chotto, I circled back for a return visit two weeks ago to try it.

          First, an appetizer of Goma ae, $3, made with both green beans and spinach. The sesame seasoning was under-salted and mostly tasted of sugar. Far, far too sweet. And the vegetables were water-logged. No need to order this again.
          http://www.flickr.com/photos/melaniew...

          Miso tonkotsu ramen, $12 – The milky emulsified stock is made with pork and chicken, not pork bones alone. Just a little bit of white miso for extra complexity, but otherwise, fairly straightforward. While the basic flavor of the stock was fine, the salt level was relentlessly oppressive. When I could not get my server’s attention again, I poured some ice water from my glass in the center to dilute a portion of the bowl to that I could bear tasting some of it. Besides the chashu, toppings included green onions, daikon sprouts, some annoying black sesame seeds, and the even more irritating raw chopped cabbage. The skunky taste of the cabbage clashed with the stock and the peppery sprouts, and it was hard to avoid the cabbage flotilla when trying to eat this. Noodles were on the soft side.
          http://www.flickr.com/photos/melaniew...

          I paid the 50¢ supplement to add half of a seasoned soft-boiled egg. As can be seen in this photo, it’s a mess. Part of it broke off and the kitchen still put the fragments in the bowl. The outside surface of the egg was like rubber. The egg was refrigerator-cold and over seasoned, again so extremely salty.
          http://www.flickr.com/photos/melaniew...

          The chashu showed some potential, two thick slabs of pork belly. But they were burnt to black on the edges. Acrid, carbonized charcoal bitterness made them inedible.
          http://www.flickr.com/photos/melaniew...

          Poor quality control and multiple defects in this order, just feels like no one in the kitchen cares. Chotto enters the ramen ranking at #85.

          PERSONAL RAMEN RANKING
          1. Ramen Halu, 375 Saratoga Ave Ste M, San Jose
          2. Tsujita, 2057 Sawtelle Blvd, Los Angeles
          3. Tatsunoya at Mitsuwa Kyushu and Okinawan festival, 675 Saratoga Ave, San Jose
          4. Himawari, 202 2nd Ave, San Mateo
          5. Orenchi Ramen, 3540 Homestead Rd, Santa Clara
          6. Santouka, 675 Saratoga Ave, San Jose
          7. Maru Ichi, 368 Castro St, Mountain View
          8. Izakaya Mai, 212 2nd Avenue, San Mateo
          9. Shin Shin Men Men, 21265 Stevens Creek Blvd, Cupertino
          10. Gaku Japanese Charcoal Grill, 5152 Moorpark Ave, San Jose
          11. Yonsei Ramen Shop @ Hopscotch, 1915 San Pablo Ave, Oakland
          12. Ajisen Noodle, 47890 Warm Springs Blvd, Fremont
          13. Maru Ichi, 530 Barber Lane, Milpitas
          14. Ramen Dojo, 805 South B St, San Mateo
          15. Shalala, 698 W Dana St, Mountain View
          16. Tanto, 1063 E El Camino Real, Sunnyvale
          17. Izakaya Restaurant, 1335 N 1st St, San Jose
          18. Alexander’s Steakhouse Lounge, 10330 N Wolfe Rd, Cupertino (closed)
          19. Santa, 1944 South El Camino Real, San Mateo
          20. Do-Henkotsu House of Tokushima Ramen, 4330 Moorpark Ave, San Jose (closed)
          21. Ramen Tenma, 487 Saratoga Ave, San Jose
          22. Hapa Ramen, 1 Ferry Bldg, San Francisco
          23. Ryowa, 859 Villa St, Mountain View
          24. Orson Restaurant Bar + Lounge, 508 4th St, San Francisco (closed)
          25. Izakaya Sozai, 1500 Irving St, San Francisco
          26. Sumiya, 2634 Homestead Rd, Santa Clara
          27. Gen Ramen, 47890 Warm Springs Blvd, Fremont (closed)
          28. Hana Japanese Restaurant, 101 Golf Course Dr, Rohnert Park
          29. Ken Ken Ramen, pop-up at The Corner, San Francisco (closed, moved)
          30. Kyora Japanese Restaurant, 1217 Wildwood Ave, Sunnyvale (closed)
          31. Sobo, 988 Franklin St, Oakland
          32. Kotetsu Ramen, 2089 El Camino Real, Santa Clara
          33. BY Grill, 3226 Geary Blvd, San Francisco (closed)
          34. Norikonoko, 2556 Telegraph Ave, Berkeley
          35. Dohatsuten, 799 San Antonio Rd, Palo Alto
          36. Hana, 4320 Moorpark, San Jose
          37. Ozumo, 2251 Broadway, Oakland
          38. Men Oh Tokushima Ramen, 5120 Geary Blvd, San Francisco
          39. Muracci’s, 244 State St, Los Altos
          40. Katanaya, 430 Geary Blvd., San Francisco
          41. Tadamasa, 34672 Alvarado Niles Road, Union City
          42. Noodle Me, America’s Cup Village concession, San Francisco
          43. Masa's Sushi, 400 San Antonio Road, Mountain View
          44. Ippuku, 2130 Center St, Berkeley
          45. Nombe, 2491 Mission St, San Francisco
          46. Gochi, 19980 Homestead Rd, Cupertino
          47. Shimo Modern Steakhouse, 241 Healdsburg Ave, Healdsburg (closed)
          48. Oyaji, 3123 Clement St, San Francisco
          49. Ramen Misoya, 3541 Homestead Rd, Santa Clara
          50. Chubby Noodle, 570 Green St, San Francisco
          51. Ame Restaurant, 689 Mission St, San Francisco
          52. Yu-Raku, 104 S El Camino Real, San Mateo
          53. Namu, 439 Balboa St, San Francisco (moved)
          54. Halu Restaurant, 312 8th Ave, San Francisco
          55. Sanmi, 3226 Geary Blvd, San Francisco (closed)
          56. Hatcho, 1271 Franklin Mall, Santa Clara
          57. Kahoo, 4330 Moorpark Ave, San Jose
          58. Tomoe, 810 3rd St, San Rafael (closed)
          59. Ringer Hut, 1072 Saratoga Ave, San Jose
          60. Noodle Theory, 3242 Scott St, San Francisco (closed)
          61. Watami Shabu Shabu and Ramen, 5344 Geary Blvd, San Francisco (closed)
          62. Where’s Buta by Elgin Espiritu and June Lee, Eat Real Festival, Oakland
          63. Kumako, 211 E. Jackson Street, San Jose
          64. Japanese Restaurant Hoshi, 246 Saratoga Avenue, Santa Clara
          65. Ramen Club, 723 California Dr, Burlingame
          66. Saiwaii Ramen, 2240 Irving St, San Francisco
          67. Ryowa, 2068 University Ave, Berkeley (after ownership change)
          68. King Won Ton, 1936 Irving St, San Francisco
          69. Tazaki Sushi, 3420 Judah St, San Francisco
          70. Ramen Rama, 19774 Stevens Creek Blvd, Cupertino (closed)
          71. Ogi-San Ramen, 10789 Blaney Ave, Cupertino (closed)
          72. Kaimuki Grill, 104 S El Camino Real, San Mateo (closed)
          73. Tanto, 1306 Saratoga Ave, San Jose (now Dan Izakaya)
          74. Okazu Ya SF (Noriega), 2445 Noriega St, San Francisco
          75. King's Garden Ramen, 39055 Cedar Blvd, Newark (closed)
          76. Sushi Bistro, 445 Balboa St, San Francisco (closed, moved)
          77. Genki Ramen, 3944 Geary Blvd, San Francisco
          78. Mitsuwa Hokkaido festival booth, 675 Saratoga Ave, San Jose
          79. Dan Izakaya, 1306 Saratoga Ave, San Jose
          80. Lakuni, 325 E 4th Ave, San Mateo
          81. 100% Healthy Desserts, 1155 Taraval St., San Francisco
          82. Mifune, 1737 Post St, San Francisco
          83. H2A Noodle, 42318 Fremont Blvd., Fremont (closed)
          84. Iroha, 1728 Buchanan St, San Francisco
          85. Chotto, 3317 Steiner St, San Francisco
          86. Miraku Noodles, 2131 N Broadway, Walnut Creek
          87. Manpuku, 2977 College Ave, Berkeley
          88. Tanpopo, 1740 Buchanan Street, San Francisco
          89. Sushi Yoshi, 39261 Cedar Blvd, Newark
          90. La Shang Niang Ramen (OEC), 42 Dixon Rd, Milpitas (closed)
          91. Oidon, 71 E. 4th Avenue, San Mateo
          92. Taraval Okazu Ya, 1735 Taraval St., San Francisco
          93. Suzu Noodle House, 1581 Webster Street, San Francisco
          94. Bushido Izakaya, 156 Castro St, Mountain View
          95. Fresh Taste, 2107 El Camino Real, Palo Alto
          96. Asuka Ramen, 883 Bush St, San Francisco (closed)
          97. Sapporo-ya, 1581 Webster St, San Francisco
          98. Tokyo Ramen, 678 Barber Lane, Milpitas (closed)
          99. Ramen Tomo, 4390 Telegraph Ave, Oakland
          100. Kamakura, 2549 Santa Clara Ave, Alameda
          101. Mama-san!, 312 8th Ave, San Francisco (closed)
          102. Katana-ya Ramen, 10546 San Pablo Ave, El Cerrito
          103. Hotei, 1290 9th Ave, San Francisco
          104. Bear's Ramen House, 2521 Durant, Berkeley

          2 Replies
          1. re: Melanie Wong

            I've meant to ask this for years...is or was Izakaya Mai's ramen that good, Melanie? Its looks just never strike me as a good ramen place, and so I've never tried ramen there.

            1. re: vincentlo

              Here's my original 2008 report on the miso ramen at Izakaya Mai, and it's still the best miso ramen I've tasted around here (take that Misoya!). I'd been there before, didn't think much of it, but am glad that I made a return visit.
              http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/576225