Mad genius Homaro Cantu’s abrupt recasting of Moto’s more levelheaded baby brother, Otom, brings us a futuristic Asian-inspired lounge just four months before Grant Achatz’s neighboring Next is scheduled to debut its own Asian-inspired menu. Chef Thomas Bowman remains in charge, and the Motodelic technological applications that made the mother ship’s rep are a bit more obviously applied than they were at Otom.
Typically, there are a number of intriguing or amusing gimmicks at play—a dedicated noodle puller is stationed in the front window, and servers are skilled in the art of menu origami. And a few are every bit as irritatING as the awkward new name—a special “miracle berry”-focused chef’s-table tasting is available, and there’s the option of paying the kitchen to cook by the hour—a risky bet if the glacial pacing of the a la carte courses on my visits is any indication.
There’s also—theoretically at least—the existence of microbatched house-brewed beers to accompany a tight but respectable beer list. Though they’d been long sold out by the time I got there, I did manage to taste a superb if sweet barrel-aged manhattan based on the 12-year-old Japanese single-malt whiskey Suntory Yamazaki.
At the moment, those missing “nanobeers” aren’t the only broken promise diners may encounter. The menu will arrive folded in a perfect cube containing your amuse—on two occasions a tiny porcelain cup sheltering a sake-seasoned shrimp dumpling “shooter.” Lift it, throw it back and . . . nothing. You’ll quickly realize you need to extract the morsel with your naked fingers, request chopsticks, or—if you’re like my resourceful neighbor one evening at a communal table—you’ll slip on a glove to get the job done.
But it’s the most dramatic dish on the menu that best illustrates the unrealized ambition here. It involves the arrangement of three pieces of orange-cured salmon on a brick of pink Himalayan sea salt, drizzled with liquid nitrogen that emits a cloud of tantalizing vapor. The spell breaks when the fish is then carefully deposited atop a trio of undercooked shredded vegetable pancakes that disintegrate owing to a wet, slimy batter.
Other clever ideas tend to be sabotaged by imprecision or, worse, shoddy product. A pair of shucked bluepoint oysters topped with uni and foie gras brackets an inverted beer glass that contains mesquite vapors. Upturned, the aroma escapes and it’s replaced by a pour of German-style lager. It could have been great if the bivalves weren’t utterly manky. Similarly, small slices of duck breast paired with wonderfully sour greens and sweet crumbled Filipino sausage are marred by the pointless flourish of a sunny-side up quail egg embedded in the center of a rubbery toast-shaped “puri,” toad-in-the-hole style.
But the biggest disappointments lie in the dishes founded on one of the world’s most ancient and fundamental culinary techniques. The udon noodles certainly look appealing, thick and rough cut, like someone’s grandma made them, but they’re undercooked and too doughy, unaided by the light lemongrass broth and the sodium alginate coconut water “encapsulation” meant to be pierced like a poached egg. Conversely, la mien with pork belly are finished as a sweet, dry ramen-noodle-like preparation that arrives mushy and overcooked. A vegetarian no-carb option of fettuccine-thick seaweed with mildly spicy kimchi broth and crispy kale just tastes like a tangle of swamp matter.
Among the best dishes: simple, tender black cod fillet bathing in a light broth with a pair of dumplings filled with sweet pureed edamame, and a puck of tuna poke sandwiched by short-grain rice and a buttery-rich avocado mousse. The spicy pork-stuffed bao painted to look like sesame-studded burger buns presents a rare case where a clever idea turns out to be tasty in execution. The best dish I tried—reminiscent of the work of Moto’s great pastry chef Ben Roche—was a stack of “inverted” waffles—waffle mousse frozen in a hand-pressed waffle iron and served with a malty syrup made from reduced stout, a mango sorbet “butter pat,” and whipped coconut and vanilla. It tastes like an expertly prepared semifreddo, cool and creamy as it dissolves. But in totality it’s one of those deliciously startling sensory discombobulations that define the modernist movement in which Cantu and crew made their bones.
For years comedy has played an essential role in the work of this group. It’s mitigated the unrealized grandiose claims of the famously secretive chef, who hints he’s in possession of revolutionary technology that can feed the world. I never believed Otom played much of a role in that act. Ing is trying, but as yet, it’s just unconvincing.
Warning: a 15 percent gratuity is automatically applied to the bill, something that my server neglected to mention on my initial visit—and I failed to notice—earning himself a rather undeserved redundant tip. I blame the manhattan as much as I blame him.