The fall season is often equated with images of Thanksgiving, bulk boxes of candy. questionable Halloween costumes and the crunch of leaves underfoot. I tend to think of it as a season of fire pits, that brief window of time when you can assemble a ring of stones, stack wood, roast all manner of meats and veggies on open embers and enjoy the heat. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to separate autumn from that taste of blackened grit, that harsh but welcoming accent that ash and cinder gives to food.
While I could have visited the new yakiniku joint Gyu-Kaku, which opened quietly a few months back, it had been a while since I visited Hanhak Kim and Hiroshi Kitano’s izakaya Otto Yakitori for grilled goods and a hot cup of saké.
A year ago, while everyone else was pumping out ramen shops, snack menus and saké bombs, Otto went a slightly different direction by focusing mostly on charcoal cooking — I’m happy to report that they’re still going strong. Situated near Concordia’s downtown campus (Montreal’s other Chinatown), their 40 seats seem filled by surrounding students and cross-towners alike. Couple that with late hours almost every day of the week plus a formidable selection of booze — ranging from Japanese whiskey, saké and shōchū to cocktails incorporating ingredients like yuzu and plum wine — and you’d think the set-up would sooner resemble a rager of a dive bar with Japanese food.
Thankfully, this restaurant is more of a sable mix of two spots: Either pre-drinks and shared snacks, or a drawn-out session of plucking choices from across the menu. That’s got to be one of my favourite parts about dining here, how you can focus on the selection of skewers or dip into other areas of the menu that have salads, soups, deep-fried goods or bowls of donburi.
My dining companion and I arrived a little later in the night with the place packed, but it didn’t take long to find ourselves jimmied into a small table. While we sipped on hot wine and sweet-sour cocktails, we wanted to start with something green to precede all the protein we were bound to order, and settled on the deep-fried Brussels sprouts ($6). The halved and singed buds were served with a sprinkling of untouched pine nuts and a sweet butter soy sauce that cut just enough through their bitter profile. Roasting may be my favourite way to take them, but a soak in hot oil did the trick without making them overly greasy.
We followed this up with geso furai, fried squid on a bed of greens and ponzu sauce, dressed in green onion, red onion slices and shichimi spice powder ($5.50). While the tentacles themselves were soft to the bite and in no way rubbery, I found the crust to be a tad heavy on the starch, turning a bite slightly mushy when zested with the accompanying lemon. Still, each taste was brightened by the ponzu and onion.
I found the same issue of heaviness applied to Otto’s karaage chicken ($7), however. While the cuts of dark meat were undeniably succulent, their outer crust was similarly thick with potato starch, so much so that it its accompanying kewpie mayo and lemon was overpowered. A little too heavy, I thought, but it’d go so well with a visit for a pint of Sapporo.
When it comes to the grill at Otto, the chicken is essential and where the restaurant does its best work. The chef’s selection ($16) comes with a mix of different types that could be ordered individually, and that latter option may be a better bet for anyone who’s squeamish about eating gizzard, heart or cartilage — and for those of you who’d rather not have meat, there’s a set of veggie skewers available for a few bucks less.
Whatever you receive, the textures alternate between crispy and chewy as much as the flavours do. While the chicken meatballs are lightly spiced and seasoned, almost faintly so, the negima of chicken and spring onion are brushed with a sweet soy that caramelizes nicely on all the flesh involved. If you’ve never chanced trying less-visited areas of the bird like tail or small intestine, this is the place to do so.
What my friend and I ate at this point could’ve easily sufficed, but a good bowl of donburi is a bit hard to find among Montreal’s izakayas. We’d had plenty of dark, rich and salty dishes at this point, so we selected their negitorodon from the oft-changing special menu ($16). It’s a fatty albacore tuna rice bowl with spring onion, and though it’s described as spicy, I’d ascribe that spice to a tiny knob of wasabi placed on top. The sashimi itself was an excellent cut of fish, the kind that you could mistake for butter as it practically melts in your mouth, only slightly accented by sesame oil and soy. Some wouldn’t expect any pizzazz from a simple bowl of rice with tuna, but I’d bet a bite of this would change their mind.
Otto may have started as an outlier from the other izakayas in how it focuses on its yakitori, but times and tastes change. They may not be doing okonomiyaki, but even Otto has started to serve up ramen from time to time. Provided that they bring the same game to those dishes more commonly found elsewhere, that simply gives yet another reason to visit. If you don’t manage to pop by in the coming months as frost crawls into the city, at least put aside the time to savour the smell of charcoal behind foggy windows in the winter. You won’t be disappointed. ■