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First Bite: Chotto

Photo via Naseema Kahn

Ask the average San Franciscan, “What’s an izakaya?” and bet on a blank stare as your response. The word is about as common as “bar” in Japan, but we’re just starting to crack the surface of the notion around here. In its original form, an izakaya is built around alcohol, consumed ad nauseum, and flanked with the necessary protein-heavy small plates to keep peace. Sure there’s sashimi, but skewered meats are the pulse-quickener: hearts, intestines and even chicken feet often steal the show. The protein-heavy barrage ends with a judicious rice bomb of onigiri. Oyaji and Izakaya Sozai have done this forever in the Richmond. And with the past year’s advent of Berkeley’s Ippuku and the Mission’s Nombe, I’d dare say izakayas are a trend.

Even the Marina has one now. Though month-old Chotto doesn’t subscribe to the reckless panache of its Japanese muse. Here a pedigreed architect created what feels like a chic Asian dinner barn. All the “lesser” izakaya staples—the gizzards, the chicken skin—have left the building. They're probably not the best prelude to Sandra Bullock’ s latest at the Marina Theater anyway. Still, authenticities like tsukune (spiced chicken meatballs), ankimo (steamed monk fish) and agedashi tofu are there, and the ramen: all silken pork broth, tender belly, and custom-made egg-and-wheat noodles; has begun to draw cross-town crowds. So Chotto is just the place to take off those izakaya training wheels.

I start the ride with one of Todd Smith’ s cocktails. His shochu-spiked “Manhattan” has the right punch for the menu's parade of salty, meaty richness. Then back to those meatballs: bite-size, scallion-ridden little numbers, cooked up to the perfect moisture. I can’t think of something I’d rather sink into with a long slug of ice-cold Sapporo from the tap. It’s a quenching combination that brings me back to the point of an izakaya: to drink, eat and be merry -- and certainly no place to be asking hard questions.

Chotto, 3317 Steiner St. @ Lombard, 415-441-2223.