Otto-Tuned 

Pitch-Perfect Plates, Whatever They Are

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AS MUCH as I'd like to believe that my reviews have the power to anoint the next great restaurant, that there's a direct correlation between the number of glowing adjectives I use to describe a piece of pork belly and an evening's total sales—success, I think, has everything to do with word of mouth.

I've spent the last week helping to host a conference at Reed College full of out-of-town writers and publishing folks. Because of my position at the Mercury, my main responsibility has devolved into re-commending restaurants. I ramble off half a dozen places and try to describe why I like them—alpine influences, or freshly foraged mushrooms, or whatever. A couple hours later some agent will approach me to say, "Pok Pok was great" or "I loved Pine State Biscuits."

The idea of an elevator pitch—however much I hate it when I'm wearing my literary hat—applies to restaurants just like it applies to books and movies. If you can sum up a place in two or three sentences and make it sound great, expect a line out the door. If I'm saying things like, "Well, they have a lot of seafood on the appetizer menu, and they seem to be pretty skilled with sausage, and, yeah, this cold cucumber soup had a really nice dill flavor," most people's eyes gloss over the way yours did while reading this sentence.

Otto is the newest incarnation of the ill-fated space that recently housed Sel Gris and Fin. What kind of restaurant is it? I don't know...a good one? They have a lot of seafood on the appetizer menu, and they seem to be pretty skilled with sausage, and yeah, this cold cucumber soup had a really nice dill flavor. You're not running out the door, are you?

Too bad, because Otto is worth the run (note: the restaurant bears no relation to the other two Ottos in town). Husband-and-wife team Francis and Kim Stanton recently arrived from Michigan, shuttering what appeared to be a local favorite, Modern Food & Spirits. Michigan's loss is always someone else's gain (usually Japanese auto manufacturers), and Portland's lucky to have the pair. If they haven't created an easily summarized menu, they have created an exciting one—consistent, subtle when it needs to be, and not afraid of the occasional big flourish.

The best appetizer I've had so far was the calamari ceviche ($8). Long strips of tender squid were dominated by the citrus, but balanced out with a surprising kick. It comes served in a little cornucopia-shaped puffed flour shell, full of fresh cherry tomatoes and a couple nice dollops of guacamole.

The sausage and potato blintz ($7) was similarly excellent. The crêpe veers toward the heavier side, but considering the pool of demi-glace it's served in, it's never too dry. The sausage is rich and plentiful, and fresh horseradish goes a long way.

I wasn't crazy about the salad ($7)—baby spinach and treviso with toasted hazelnuts in a verjus vinaigrette. The dressing was a bit underwhelming, and my date commented that the soft shredded cheese on top—I think it was Gruyère—reminded her of Olive Garden (note: she likes Olive Garden; I'll be auditioning new dates).

Other options in the appetizer column include a house gravlax ($7), a selection of pâtés ($7), and shrimp fritters ($8).

The entrée side ranges from braised beef tongue in a grain mustard demi to grilled prawns with jasmine rice and saffron coconut milk. There's a big range of flavors, and while the menu itself might not be the pinnacle of focus, individual plates are universally well balanced. I couldn't place everything that went into seasoning Otto's boneless short ribs ($17), but it's a huge portion of meat that kept me swooning to the end. Excellent roasted cauliflower and spiced chickpeas come on the side.

Even better was the grilled white sturgeon ($18). I can't say the fillet itself was the most flavorful, but it was cooked through perfectly, and then served in sweet berry glaze that more than picked up the slack. The selling point of the dish is the bed of sweet corn and crab succotash, not to mention the golf ball-sized cornmeal dumplings. The final product is pretty decadent; not a bad idea to share.

I'm looking forward to trying the Neptune roll (lobster, crab, and shrimp on brioche) and the confit duck legs with farro, root vegetables, figs, preserved lemons, marcona almonds, and star anise. I saw both from across the restaurant, and I have to admit to a little buyer's remorse welling up in me.

And I'd better get on it. Through the end of July, they're running their Portland Dining Month promotion, which includes any appetizer, any entrée, and any dessert for $25. If I can't nail the whole concept in two sentences, maybe that will do the trick.

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