Ototo review

Ototo below Akaiito features an undulating red-ribbon-like lighting installation.
Ototo below Akaiito features an undulating red-ribbon-like lighting installation. Photo: Bonnie Savage

349-351 Flinders Ln Melbourne, VIC 3000

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Opening hours Dinner Tue-Sun
Features Accepts bookings, Bar, Licensed, Events
Prices Moderate (mains $20-$40)
Payments eftpos, Visa, Mastercard
Phone 03 9620 1343

Before we've ordered a drink or seen the menu or even taken a seat, we've been informed that our time is limited. "You have one and a half hours," the hostess says in a tone that's somewhere between apologetic and accusatory. It's not exactly the friendliest way to welcome people, but I'm not sure that welcome is a top priority at Ototo, the new, fusion-tinged izakaya in a Flinders Lane basement.

Ototo is an extension of Akaiito, the more formal Japanese restaurant that occupies the ground floor.

Proceed downstairs to find this sleek, dark room lined with clubby, semicircular booths, the ceiling adorned with an undulating red-ribbon-like lighting installation.

Go-to dish: Sashimi platter.
Go-to dish: Sashimi platter. Photo: Bonnie Savage

As a former hostess, I understand the anxiety around turning tables, especially on a busy weekend evening. Managing such a task is an underrated art form. What's harder to comprehend is the urge to transfer this anxiety to the customer, particularly if you're then going to leave said customer without a menu for 20 minutes.

Not to worry. In the meantime, there will be cocktails – one of them on fire, another listing shrimp as an ingredient. The fiery one, Daimyo's Revenge ($32), "tastes", to quote Ralph Wiggum from The Simpsons, "like burning". The Hotto Ototo ($25), does indeed have dried shrimp mixed in, while its mystery liquid component is decidedly savoury, but with a cloying undertone that reminds me of almond extract.

Once we manage to put in a food order, plates start coming fast: a sashimi platter ($28) with gratifyingly fresh fish, including tuna, salmon, kingfish, and sweet and creamy raw shrimp; a Korean-style steak tartare ($24) served with prawn cracker, its meatiness shot through with the sweetness of tiny, diced pears.

Korean-style steak tartare with prawn crackers.
Korean-style steak tartare with prawn crackers. Photo: Bonnie Savage

Fusion, in the bad-old-days meaning of the word, is most obvious here with something that appears to be inspired by dan dan noodles – if that dish lost its entire identity while on a drug binge in Italy. The only noodles involved are made from cucumbers which, doused in peanut butter and Sichuan spices, surround an entire globe of burrata ($23).

Does this creamy, milky, peanut-buttery amalgam taste good? Sure. But also, why? The smartest fusions play on ideas that make some kind of sense, culturally or otherwise. You replace one ingredient with something else that's similar; you see a dish through the lens of a tradition not its own. I'm not sure that this thing qualifies, though it's possible I'm missing something.

There's no doubt that the folks in the kitchen, led by executive chef Winston Zhang, can cook. This was most glaringly evident when served the black angus short rib ($42), which was generous in its serving size, gloriously tender, and came with a tiny ramekin of kimchi, a few pickles, and exactly four lettuce leaves for wrapping. Sadly, these weren't nearly enough to cut through the richness and provide a fresh foil to the platter of fatty meat. Why skimp on lettuce, of all things? I sense a talented kitchen that's being thwarted by something. Its own penchant for novelty? The misguided directives of someone in charge?

Black angus short rib.
Black angus short rib. Photo: Bonnie Savage

As the server cleared our plates, I asked for the check, cognisant of the quickly approaching hour in which I'd turn into a pumpkin. He said "Of course", before disappearing for a quarter of an hour. When he returned, he had a message – but not my bill. "I don't mean to be rude," he said, "but you need to leave in five minutes." No problem. If only you'll allow me to pay.

Melbourne is rife with new Japanese offerings, and the marketing language used to promote them makes it difficult to decide which is worthy of your hard-earned time and money. They're all sleek, they all serve "Asian-inspired small plates", they all aspire to wow you with their creative cocktails and various preparations of raw fish. It's because of these superficial similarities that the details become even more important.

The details at Ototo are occasionally impressive – that lovely raw shrimp, that tender short rib – but more than anything else, I'll remember how odd the drinks were, how focused the staff was on when I'd leave, and how unsupportive they were in making sure that the much-discussed departure occurred on time.

The room is cool, the food is tasty, the vibe is exactly what you might want from a sexy basement bar. But things will need to improve before I spend another fretted-over hour and a half on this particular experience. 

Vibe: Dark, sexy, clubby

Go-to dish: Sashimi platter

Drinks: Nice sake list, very ambitious cocktails that sometimes fall flat, a small wine selection

Cost: About $150 for two, excluding drinks

This review was originally published in Good Weekend magazine

https://www.ototo.com.au/