The all-purpose neighborhood Japanese restaurant — you know, the one that specializes in udon, tempura, and California roll combos, and begins with a free cup of miso soup — is finally on the wane. Or rather, it's evolving: Now that tuna maki are available in Safeway cases across the land and trained sushi chefs are in short supply, new restaurateurs are shrinking the raw-fish bar to make room for a robata grill. In place of edamame and futomaki, we're ordering bacon-wrapped mochi and grilled chicken thighs, and if the restaurant calls itself an izakaya, craft beer and good sake as well.
The new menu template showing up at restaurants like Izakaya Sozai, Nombe, and Izakaya Ju-Ku — centered on small, cooked dishes and a flurry of foods on a stick — isn't as tethered to the strict rota of dishes American diners consider authentic Japanese, and seems to give chefs more room to play. You can find the new template in place at two more restaurants that opened in mid-December: Kasumi, a sparkly little thing in the Parkside, and Chotto, a smoldering beauty in the Marina. They share a commitment to the robata, if not a total mastery of it, as well as a number of the same dishes.
The theme of Tad and Zerlayna Horie's lovely Chotto seems to be petrified forest, a space where aged wood segues into poured concrete and the gray of fog meets the gray of slate. A wall of branches with bark attached is backlit, giving it the peachy glow of healthy flesh. The place isn't a morgue — the lights over the bar have shades printed in primary colors, and there's a mosaic of labels and cards near the back — but it's sultry-eyed and tailored enough to merit a few minutes with an iron and some shoe polish before you meet it for a date.
Chotto's menu of three-bite dishes, perfect for Twitter-addled attention spans, is arranged from sashimi and salads to grilled red meats, and the servers keep the progression flowing from delicate to rich as the evening progresses. (The dark side of their close supervision: fending off one pushy waiter, who was so intent on getting us to order his favorite dishes and more expensive drinks that we felt bullied.)
Goma ae ($4), pressed-together nuggets of blanched mizuna leaves resting on a bed of sweet sesame paste, was followed by agedashi tofu ($5). We ate the tofu as quickly as we could, trying to catch the evanescent crispness of its fried coating before it melted into a pool of delicate tentsuyu sauce and grated daikon. We swiped warm potatoes (mentaimo, $6), coated in a mustard-tinged dressing, through orange dabs of spicy, salty pollack roe.
Then the meats began arriving. Chef Armando Justo does some beautiful things with a charcoal grill. Mackerel fillets ($7) came off the fire all crackling edges and buttery flesh, to be dipped in a sweet, sesame-flecked miso sauce, and the meat on the pork ribs (abara, $9), with its caramelized miso glaze, no longer belonged to the bone it surrounded.
There were a few problems with the skewers — chicken thighs ($6) and pork cheeks ($7) were sticky with soy-based marinade and toughened up — but his sweetly glazed chicken meatballs (tsukune, $8), punctuated by the airy crunch of water chestnuts, had the consistency of good intentions: After a few seconds, they vanished, but the glow of their passing remained.
Playing Skipper to Chotto's Fashion Barbie, Kasumi is an unpretentious, brightly lit neighborhood restaurant that sells ramen during the day and yakitori at night (more precisely, it sells kushiyaki, since "yakitori" refers to chicken skewers and Kasumi's grilled dishes include vegetables, seafood, and red meat). The tonkotsu ramen ($10), with its straightforward pork broth and gummy noodles, isn't the sort of dish you make a pilgrimage for, unless you're an obsessive collector and ranker of noodle soups, but dinner is certainly as good as meals at the Sunset's popular Izakaya Sozai.
Lookswise, the restaurant combines the bureaucratic and the psychedelic, with its elaborate, etched-glass entryway; taupe walls and plain wood tables; and a carpet drenched in a dizzying aquamarine wave pattern. The robata station is at the center of the restaurant, enclosed in glass so only the cook leaves smelling like charcoal; at an open-air station next to the windowed room, another cook composes cold plates. The waiters are adorable; they also need to be reminded that a kushiyaki meal should end, not begin, with the heartiest, starchiest dishes. (Ramen is not an appetizer.)
The bulk of Kasumi's menu is made up of skewers, all priced from $3 to $6 per pair. They show off the worst and best of what can happen when you thread tiny bits of meat onto skinny wood skewers and grill them quickly. Sometimes they cook too quickly, in fact. The duck breast ($5) came out firm and livery, the chicken thighs underseasoned ($3.25), and the chicken skin ($3.25) tasted as if I was snacking on Ryvita crisps brushed with musky chicken fat.
The more fat the raw ingredients had before they hit the grill, the better the result. Bacon strips wrapped around asparagus spears ($4) browned and shrank over the fire, encasing the vegetable in a crisp, smoky case; bacon-wrapped quail eggs ($4.50) produced a gush of meat-tinged yolk when we bit in. Kasumi molded its tsukune ($3.25) into cattail blossoms on a slim wood stalk, the garlic-spiked meatballs tasting, rather pleasantly, like breakfast sausage. And its tontoro ($4) — cubes of uncured pork jowl, less jiggly than pork belly but just as succulent — sizzled and caramelized on the grill, its crisped-fat exterior yielding to the denser crunch of the lean meat inside.
Along with the skewers came respectable versions of standards like ohitashi; thin-skinned gyoza; rare steak tataki anointed with garlic chips and ponzu; and pan-fried, salted mackerel. The most memorable was the chazuke ($6). We poured a pot of dashi over a mound of crisped rice crowned with shredded salmon, orange pearls of salmon roe, and a thatch of shredded seaweed, and watched it slump as it soaked in the broth. The brothy rice was a humble dish, its salt bursts and sea-swept smells serene rather than flashy. And yet I kept spooning into the dish as if it were made of truffles and foie gras.
Next to our table was an older couple who hunted up and down the menu for kara-age and tempura. One finally exclaimed, "I don't recognize any of these dishes!" In three or four more years, I predict, they will.