Robataya Oton5447 Kearny Villa RoadKearny Mesa858-277-3989
Open for a little more than a month, there's still no identifying marker above the entrance to Oton, only the worn remnants of the previous tenant's sign. The hordes that stream into neighboring Shogun—a huge, faux-Japanese tile-roofed restaurant with a Benihana-style menu—have yet to discover this newcomer, which launched quietly and is advertised solely by a small wooden table outside its doors that holds a single orchid and a few business cards. So let's just keep this one between us, OK?
Oton is the latest member of the restaurant family that started with a matriarch. Okan, named for a regional Japanese word for “mother,” opened nearby last year. Okan is exquisitely beautiful, with dishes that are elegant but homey, the sort Mom would make if she were a skilled Japanese cook. Almost equally endearing is Oton, a Japanese term for “father.” It's a place where dads might go for a guy's night out—nothing crazy or anything, just a couple drinks, then a little food, then maybe a few more drinks.
One wall of the small restaurant is lined with partitioned rooms, each elevated off the floor and accessible by a wooden step, next to which you're meant to leave your shoes before entering. In a true tatami room, you'd sit cross-legged on the tatami mat-covered ground, but here there's a recessed cutout in the floor in which you can comfortably rest your legs. The entrances are hung with fabric curtains for privacy, and the setting is peaceful, except for the loud jazz soundtrack—great in and of itself, but a little incongruous in this zen-like setting. There's also a small bar in front of the kitchen with a few seats for dining.
Oton's menu is made up mostly of small plates and a number of grilled items called robotayaki. Traditionally, diners sit around an open hearth and choose from a display of fresh ingredients—seafood, meat and vegetables—that the robata chef would cook and then pass to you, hot off the grill. Having one here would be a dream come true. (Hello, food gods, it's me, Candice.)
Here, the grilling is done behind the scenes. Morsels of short rib, chicken thigh and miso-marinated beef tongue come out juicy and nicely charred on the edges. Hamachi kama (yellowtail collar) is grilled until the skin is crisp and the fish, rich in good oils, is meltingly moist. Each dish is served with a brilliantly pink pickled-ginger shoot to cleanse the palate between bites. Food this pure and simple requires great ingredients, so Oton shops for its produce at Chino Farm, the famed North County farm owned by a Japanese-American family. The day's harvest is turned into expertly fried tempura of seasonal vegetables, like sweet pea pods, eggplant or skewers of grape-sized Brussels sprouts.
Figure on tasting a bite or two of each plate if you're sharing, although there are a few more substantial dishes including nabe—hot pots cooked on an induction range set into each tabletop. We tried shio chankonabe, a large clay pot of delicious soup filled with whole head-on prawns, clams, pork, tofu and vegetables that went from raw to bubbling hot in just minutes on our cooktop. Other hearty and tasty dishes were comforting bowls of udon and sabazushi, a filet of mackerel cured in rice vinegar and sugar then pressed in a wooden mold with rice to make oshizushi, a block-shaped sushi.
Desserts are homemade and change regularly. On one night it was a sorbet made with local strawberries. And Oton's sake menu is excellent and vast; the sweet servers will deliver samples to help you make a selection. In fact, they're so considerate here that when one of my dining companions dropped a bit of food on her shirt, our waitress appeared with a towel and a stain stick. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.