Why not Toot???


What’s in a name? Well, if your name is Otto and you are a relatively new restaurant in Portland, there could be confusion. IMG_2349 Particularly if you are a relatively upscale restaurant, especially one without Bavarian leanings. I’m certain the couple behind Otto had a good reason for selecting the name, perhaps a beloved family member or dearly departed pet (do people name serious restaurants after their pets? Hmm) but whatever the case, if these folks were from around these here parts (I think I read months ago they hail from Michigan) it seems unlikely they would have latched onto Otto, since we already have Otto’s Sausage Kitchen, operating since the 20s, and a place I’m not familiar with (it’s in Beaverton, we all know I don’t go THERE) called Otto’s & Anita’s, which I’m told is some sort of whee-haw-lederhosen-special occasion place.

As they always say, you can’t judge a book by its cover, but whatever the reason, people here just do not associate Otto with fancy, and Glenda kept implying it reminded her of an alpine gondola operator.IMG_2353 When we went there, several at out table actually complained to the staff about the name, and I could tell they had probably heard it all before. It is a nice round, symmetrical name though, and what could make a better logo than a palindrome? That being said, Otto could avoid all these issues by keeping their same letters, but just internalizing those Os. After all, who doesn’t want to go out for fine dining at a place called Toot? Hey, it’s still a palindrome.

I suppose if Otto seemed like it was on a path that would rocket it to instant fame, it would be easier to not worry whether the rather confusing name would prove problematic in Puddletown. The major probleappears to be that Otto most likely has other bad karma mojo-ing its happiness, nothing at all to do with the good food or pleasant people who work there.

First of all, Otto seems to have chosen “cursed ground” on which to pitch its eatery tent. Although I never heard anything in particular about there being any sort of issues when the space was “Ken’s Home Plate” (it appears that Ken just decided to move on. IMG_2357 Doesn’t he hang around with the Zuke guy these days?) there was nothing but issues with the next two nosh-pits in this space, Sel Gris and Fin. As everyone who follows food here most likely knows by now, although it was one of the absolutely best regarded restaurants in Portland, with a revered chef, Sel Gris was totally defeated by a simple rooftop fire (I’m sure Aviary knows what that’s like) that would have only interrupted most well-run (professionally owned) restaurants, but not shuttered them forever.

IMG_2339And alas, poor Fin, almost everyone who had a meal there raved about the quality, freshness, and inventiveness of Trent Pierce’s seafood, but right when they were getting up to speed, clientele-wise, the owner of the space (whom I think also owned Sel Gris) pulled the plug and said she had decided she had enough of restaurant ownership. Hopefully when Otto came in, they bought this space and are not leasing it from the aforementioned individual, who came across as a very nice person on the phone, but clearly does not know how to run a successful restaurant or treat highly acclaimed chefs.

Also, Otto is now filling the space where the predecessors were a couple of highly respected restaurants, so they have some really big shoes to fill. Fin was relatively fortunate, Sel Gris had been gone a long time before Fin opened up (a year maybe?) and the food at Fin was completely dissimilar to Sel Gris (in fact totally novel in Portland) so there just were not comparisons between the two places.IMG_2365 Otto, on the other hand, moved in not at all long after Fin had its plug yanked, and they serve some seafood, as well as many very fancy looking plates of food (I think I recognized some of the dishware from Sel Gris) so it’s pretty hard to eat there and not think of the two places that came before it.

Heidi sent me some comments later, and while she said she liked everything she tasted, she thought that perhaps Otto was a bit too fancy and expensive for the average person who might stumble in there thinking it was a more middle of the road sort of place. IMG_2343I actually found the food to be a relatively good deal (except for the drinks/wine, which were really expensive) and the portions were a decent to large size, and the desserts were really inexpensive ($6.) Also, Sturgeon for $18 is a really great deal (actually, I think it ended up being $17, as several items were a dollar cheaper on the bill than on the menu. When did you ever see that before, food cheaper than on the menu?) Maybe it’s all a matter of perception, Heidi was expecting something simpler, so found Otto a bit high (she said much of her perception of what Otto would be like was based on the name) where I found the prices at Otto to be moderate, because I came in with the perception that Otto was trying to do high end food.

IMG_2356Heidi thought that perhaps Otto was setting the bar a bit too high though, and that the space doesn’t lend itself that well to fine dining, and that it might have a hard time finding an audience for its somewhat eclectic form of cuisine. I really think, however, that as Otto has the rather unfortunate task of following after Sel Gris and Fin, it has to set high standards, and it probably has to live up to them to succeed.

This all winds around to what might be Otto’s major obstacle, perception. As all of the Otto’s in this area are either casual or Germanic, people see the name Otto and either get it confused with the other two Ottos, think it is Germanic, or think it is a really casual sort of eatery. IMG_2347Other people read that it serves American Food, and might think of burgers, steaks and chicken, when in fact Otto’s serves sturgeon, pate, and duck legs. And lastly, people might look at the predecessors at this address and expect the food preparation at Otto to be at levels as high as the critically acclaimed Sel Gris or hope for the wonderfully innovative cooking of the short-lived but well-loved Fin.

Which leads to the major problem, us! IMG_2366We need to judge Otto on the ambiance, customer service, and food preparation of Otto, and not worry what has been at 1852 SE Hawthorne in the past, whether the name conjures up the little weiner-dog down the street, or even contemplate if the menu is too multicultural to be called “American Food.” Besides, recent census reports have indicated that by 2015 the United States will be approximately 55% non-caucasian, so who knows what the term “American Food” will really mean in the future. Maybe Otto should start adding some tacos to that menu. I love a nice taco.

Hmm, perhaps I should now actually say a word or two about our dinner at Otto. There’s a novel idea!IMG_2363 Let me first mention that I’ve noticed that since they have opened, Otto is doing their best to make a good go of it, they participated in $25 dining month (yes, the actual name of the event is lost in my old scattered noggin, but I’m pretty sure it was in June) and actually honored the promotion for an entire month after (with their whole menu) they are about the begin serving Sunday Brunch (yes, we love our tasty weekend mid-morning eats here) and Heidi told me Otto has actually plastered signs all around the Hawthorne neighborhood, certainly an unusual step for a fine dining establishment here in town. Also, instead of sounding pained when I increased our reservation size twice (unlike both Sel Gris and Fin, who were tormented by over 6 people) they welcomed as many people as I could bring, and actually told me more was better than fewer. Okay, I know all of this might point to the fact that in the early days Otto is struggling for clientele, but still, they are trying to take the bull by the horns and run with it ( I really wanted to mash three metaphors together there, but sadly could only manage two) and I applaud them for that.

IMG_2348We had a really unique gathering of people for our dinner this evening (we were 11 torsos) and actually managed one individual of not quite a real age (Heidi and Julian’s baby Hank, to appear in September) four people under 30, two below 40, several of us at that rapidly getting crusty stage, and Glenda, whom we all know is timeless (at least I’m pretty sure she thinks this.)

As for the decor in Otto, it’s closer to Fin than Sel Gris. The walls have had minor color modifications, and I think maybe part of the upholstery has been redone, but it seems similar to how Fin looked, with the addition of the giant dead thing hanging over the dining room and the sparser dead thing hanging in the bar area. IMG_2352The giant dead creature was an elk head, and the more spindly deceased thing was the horny part only of some beast. Everyone kept wondering if the big dead fellow was Otto. Of course taxidermy has its many fans, Heidi and Julian are collectors and Glenda has her lovely stuffed chicken (and some taxidermy too) but when I am sitting there gnawing on some poor creature’s deceased carcass, the fewer reminders I have of the fact that I’m a monster, the better. Poor Otto. although he was a striking fellow, was still causing me guilt pangs all evening with his big, liquidy, brown plastic eyes and noble demeanor. Might as well just lay a few bleached bones alongside the table as well. Luckily, however, Otto is not a French restaurant, so I didn’t have the additional pain of sitting there watching one of my table mates chewing on elk toes or venison ears or something of that truly devastating nature. Hypocritical meat eater that I am, I like associating my animal bits with the grocery meat aisle and those hard foam trays and those squishy, blood soaked pads they hide under the meat so that you occasionally cook them with your food by accident, not with something who used to enjoy eating as much as me.

On that fun note, on to the beverages! Drinks are getting way too expensive in Portland recently, and Otto was no exception (Heidi also noted the wine was not cheap.) Consequently, as my income is not growing with the cost of living, and won’t be any time soon, if I can’t find an interesting sounding drink for $8 or less, I have something non-alcoholic, as a money saving gesture.IMG_2369 It’s true, it takes a bit of the celebratory nature out of the dinners, not checking out some fun sounding elixir that I would never make at home (especially as my beverages at home consist of popping the tab on a can of Hansen’s Soda – got to keep those pounds on!) but at least Sam discovered that Otto had a fun non-boozy drink with Rosemary and Ginger Beer, and I and several people had those, which although lacking in buzz, were certainly full of intriguing liquids and a big spike of Rosemary bush.

On to those starters …

Elephant Garlic Soup, Soft Egg, Crouton – I had this, and it was quite similar to the mild garlic soup I had in Madrid while sitting in the Plaza Mayor at nightfall. IMG_2359Otto’s had the addition of the extra protein of the perfectly prepared egg, but the Spanish version still wins, since while slurping there I was surrounded by the imaginary screams of those who died in the Spanish Inquisition (what, this doesn’t sound like a plus you say?)

Baby Spinach, Treviso, Greens, toasted hazelnuts, gruyere, verjus vinaigrette

House Gravlax, Buckwheat Bilini Garnishes – This was the prettiest presentation of gravlax I have ever seen, sort of a charcuterie plate with salmon. It’s true the fish portion was limited, but the plate had all sorts of other attractive  items dispersed around the fish.

House Pate, pickles, toast, mustard – David ordered this for the table, and it was really a nice presentation, and even had a pickled pepper (but was peckless, just the one pretty red pickled pepper.)

IMG_2351Sausage and Potato Blintz, fresh horseradish – Glenda asked the very young waitress if the blintzes were like Glenda’s Grandmother used to make, and as it happened, the waitress knows Glenda’s Granny really well, as she lives in the crypt down in her basement. Ahem, anyway, when the blintz arrived it was nothing at all like her Granny used to make, as it was kind of a roll thing with brown sauce. I could have taken it or left it, but Kirsey loved the sauce, and she was happy when a similar sauce appeared on Ryan’s squash.

Shrimp Fritters, quinoa tabbouleh, zahtar aioli – I’m pretty sure I must have tasted this, as it’s getting hard to go through a dinner without tasting almost everything at the table, but I don’t remember any comments, but it must have been decent, as I see the word aioli listed there.

Pan Seared Sea Scallops, golden beet, radish and apple slaw – I think this was Melissa’s entree. Really elaborate, deconstructed presentation, and I’m almost sure that was a Sel Gris plate

Grilled White Sturgeon, sweet corn succotash, cornmeal dumpling – At least three or four of us had this, as you just do not see Sturgeon that often in restaurants here, and the price was certainly right (especially with that mysterious $1 off the price.)IMG_2361 I guess I am a sturgeon neophyte, as I just don’t know a White Sturgeon from an African-American Sturgeon from a Hispanic Sturgeon, and which nationality it is we have loafing around in the Columbia River munching on radioactive garbage and living like 100 years, but I know they are big, creepy looking monster fish, and if one was lying right beside the table I’d have a hard time eating it, because it would be way too nasty looking to chow down on. That being said, I love sturgeon, although to be honest the rather sour tasting pink sauce this was served with (raspberry, cherry, rhubarb?) did not make it my favorite fish dish ever. Others at the table enjoyed it though, and David, who said he doesn’t like sturgeon because he finds it too plain, thought the sauce really jazzed it up quite a bit.

IMG_2368Neptune Roll, lobster, shrimp, crab, toasted bun – Duh, I could not figure out what this was, and thought from the description it was some kind of big sushi roil, as when I see roll most times in a fusion sort of restaurant it’s usually a Japanese spin-off. It turns out Julian had recently had a Neptune Roll somewhere else, and knew exactly what it was, so ordered it. Judging by what I saw, it appears to be like a seafood salad sandwich. Heidi and Julian shared this, and Heidi said it was quite good, with lots of aioli, but she found it rather expensive ($13) compared to the previous Neptune Roll they had gotten elsewhere.

Stuffed Yellow Squash, lentils, herbs, aromatics, tomato vin and basil – This had to be the ultimate vegetarian item, and Ryan decided to take it for a test drive. A really pretty presentation with the charred squash and the two sauces. When I asked Ryan his opinion, he said he liked the squash, and the basil based sauce, but that the tomato sauce was not an overly good match for the flavor of the squash, and would have preferred just the herb based sauce.

Grilled Prawns, vegetables, sesame, saffron coconut milk jasmine rice – This was a dish with a rather Asian flair, and a nice portion of really good sized prawns. David said it was really very tasty, and was glad he ordered it.

Boneless Short Ribs, roasted cauliflower, warm spices, fried chick peas – this was Cora’s choice, and it was really tender, hearty, and tasty.

IMG_2364Confit Duck Legs, farro, root vegetables, figs, preserved lemons, marcona olives, star anise – When Glenda was eating this she kept making her yum, yum, yum noise, which is always a good sign that she is enjoying something. Also, the portion was immense.

Desserts – All $6- quite a bargain.IMG_2370

Vanilla Tangerine Creme Brulee  – crisp burnt sugar top, berry garnish – Most of us had this, and it was really very good.
Berry Shortcake – whipped cream – it certainly looked yummy.
IMG_2374Salted Caramel Gelato – drowning in espresso with cocoa nibs – Amongst others, Heidi and Julian had this, and found it quite delicious. I would have had it based on the salted caramel gelato and cocoa nibs, but the espresso would have ruined it for me, and after eating the whole thing I probably would have been awake three successive nights. As it is, because of the conversation overload I often experience at the dinners, I often have a hard time sleeping after our larger, more boisterous dining events.

This was a really fun dinner, much due to our youth-slanted collection of munchers, and part also due to the general feeling of good will everyone had toward Heidi and Julian, who are about to face their time in the “birth spotlight.”IMG_2372 The fact that most of the food was delicious, and beautifully presented, didn’t hurt either. Also, the people who ran Otto seemed really nice, and like they were happy to have us checking them out, and it was a nice touch when the chef (owner, I think) thanked us all for coming. Quite often, we go to a much-hyped restaurant, and everyone says that while things were fine, they can see no reason to ever go back, often because nothing seems particularly noteworthy. Several of my regulars told me they would be happy to return to Otto, and hoped I would give it a good review, as they wanted Otto to have some good publicity, and hopefully not only survive in this tough space (and economy) but thrive. As it happens, I rarely listen to my group, I have a mind (well, at least 1/2 a mind) of my own, but I see no reason to trash anything at Otto, the atmosphere is fine (despite the dead, staring eyes) the menu is interesting and attractively prepared, and for what seems to me upscale dining, the prices are moderate, although they could still tone down the dollar figures on the drink menu a bit. I still like the name Toot though, and just think what a classy logo that would be with some little eyeballs in the Os and the T’s made into elk antlers. Do  I know cutting edge marketing, or what?