Serious question: How many times have you eaten Japanese food? Scrambling to recall the names of all the sushi places you’ve visited? Is it Sushihana or Sushiyana? Trying to remember what that crazy roll you had one time was stuffed with? Was it Cheetos? Firstly, don’t ever do that again. And secondly, unbeknownst to many, Japanese food actually exceeds the boundaries of nori and white rice. It actually encompasses a wide range of ingredients and flavors, drawing from the land and the sea. And what separates one Japanese dining venue from another is simple—it’s authenticity, which Kearny Mesa’s Robata-ya Oton seems to understand and masterfully uphold.
It’s an unassuming spot for such an ethnically rich establishment: Robata-ya Oton is conveniently just off the freeway, in a small strip of unrelated shops and businesses on Kearny Villa Road. Working right across the way, I never thought a highly traditional izakaya eatery would be just under my nose. (Don’t know what izakaya means? I didn’t either, until our knowledgeable hostess, Tomoko, explained it to me at the beginning of my visit). Izakaya refers to a type of Japanese food and beverage establishment, often casual in setting for after-work patrons. Oton is variation of such: it’s a robatayaki, referring to chefs cooking barbeque in front of customers, similar to a sushi restaurant. Ever since the restaurant opened its doors three years ago, locals have flooded in to get their fill of a menu chock-full of savory hot pots, beautiful sashimi, and an impressive assortment of sake.
Tomoko welcomes us graciously, and with a big smile, she handles my constant ooh-ing and ah-ing quite well. Walking in, you’re pleasantly surprised to find a single hall lined with sectioned-off booths. The private rooms are slightly raised and lit underneath with quaint lanterns. Tucked beneath the small staircase up to our own dining room await our complimentary slippers. Before Tomoko can finish requesting, we remove our shoes before entering; I’ve already chucked my sneakers like a kid getting ready for the ball pit at Chuck E. Cheese’s and scurry over to my new kicks. By the time I’m simply seated on my tatami mat, I already feel miles upon miles away from my office just down the street. It’s a much-appreciated tranquil and relaxed setting. Each room is lit by a large paper lantern, mimicking the warm white, translucent paper screens at the very top of the booth’s walls, letting in the light from the setting sun. Dark-washed wood surrounds us, only interrupted by a delicate curtain, through which we continue on with a drink to start the evening right.
After the careful guidance of wise Tomoko’s suggestions, I opt for the light beer, Echigo, and my guest shoots for a rice soju, Toyonagakura. Our hostess’ suggestions were spot-on, fitting our palates quite nicely. Echigo is an all around clean rice beer from start to finish and eventually aids me to cleanse in between dishes. Toyokagakura is equated with the potency of vodka, but when served on the rocks with a touch of water, the soju opens up and is surprisingly light and refreshing, with a bit of a kick once settled.
Continuing our good start, Reiko, our cheery waitress who’s been with the restaurant since day one, visits to grace us with more information and overall knowledge of such a dining experience. She explains that Oton’s sister restaurant, Wa Dining Okan (in Japanese, okan means “mother” and oton “father”), is the elder, opened by co-owners Ken Nakamura and Daisuke Yamashita a year prior. Nakamura sought to make a place where he, as a businessman with multiple establishments in the U.S. and Japan, would want to eat, too. And it looks as if he’s succeeded. It’s after-work hours, and I can see a group of Japanese businessmen filing in for dinner. Dressed up in tailored suits, others occupy surrounding booths, sipping on sake after what I assume was a long day’s work. If that’s not a sign of good things to come, I don’t know what is. But Oton isn’t just a choice spot to relax with friends, but is also quite accommodating for families, with food specials on Sunday and Monday.
We decide Reiko knows best and have her arrange a sampling of numerous dishes, making sure to include their praised fish that is shipped in multiple times throughout the week. Up first, the Calamari Salad. It’s a sharing-size portion of ever so delicately fried strips of calamari atop a bed of mixed spring greens dressed in a complementary ponzu sauce. Amongst the leafy salad and the chew and light crisp of calamari, the entire dish is a classy play on texture. Simple, to the point, and amazingly fresh.
Before the next dish arrives, Reiko checks back in with a suggestion for a sampling of sake to accompany our meal. An assortment of some of Japan’s finest liquor? “Don’t have to ask me twice, Reiko!” She approves of the enthusiasm, throwing in before she elaborates on the restaurants sake selection, “I’m a big drinker!” On top of a numbers of beers, wines, and soju, Oton offers over thirty sake varieties and have special events that include free tastings throughout the year. If that’s not enough reason to keep abreast with the place, the next few dishes will be.
While Reiko prepares the sake, we’re introduced to Waka, our third helpful assistant and a plate of Gyu-Tataki. Elegantly fanned out pieces of barely seared beef with their house-made ponzu sauce make this appetizer carry more weight than most; its mere aroma floods our table. The cuts are pristine, hinting at a blush tone at the very centers, and when paired with raw, minced garlic, the sensation is wild. Though the garlic is strong, it still takes the backseat to the overwhelming tenderness and marbling flavor. A touch of ponzu brings the tastes full circle. My guest literally emits, mid-mouthful, “Wow.”
Before we’ve even finished raving about the previous dish (that we concluded was sent down from meat heaven by the Zeus of Beef), Reiko returns with a tray of three different sakes. And she is met with an enormous grin on my face. As she begins to explain the three, I can’t help but to notice just how knowledgeable Reiko is in regards to the countless spirits offered at the restaurant; upon trying them, my thoughts are only further confirmed. Firstly, she has me try Dewazakura Oka, light and floral, and a popular among the ladies (this one now knows why). With finesse like that, it’s approachable and lends itself to pair well with a wide variety of dishes, such as the popular Gyu-tan Steak. Reiko prefaces the second by saying you can either get it “first class on Japan Airlines or at Oton!” Our lucky day, no? Dassai proves to be smooth and mild tasting, really opening up on the palate. It’s stronger than the previous, and has an enjoyable linger to it. The third is the sweetest of the bunch and my favorite. Deluxe Sennenju is fruity yet bold and makes a statement for a sweet sake.
Following our sampling of drink came one of sashimi: amberjack, tuna belly, snapper, scallops, octopus, and sea urchin all gracefully placed alongside one another, only to be accompanied by a dollop of wasabi and soy sauce. Before tasting, our eyes have already begun to feast on the colors and visible textures; the entire spread works in incredible harmony. The amberjack starts us off with a cleansing bite, only to be followed by the flavorful and tender tuna belly (my guest’s eventual favorite). Translucent, yet hearty, the snapper is only further complemented by the buttery scallops and striking octopus. A smooth and lively venture into sea urchins rounds out what turns to be a stunning array of Robata-ya Oton’s prime cuts of sea fare.
In between courses, I find myself sitting back quite comfortably, nothing but relaxed in our booth. The privacy matched with an impeccably attentive wait staff moves me to feel like I’m on holiday, worlds away from any other dining venue I’ve experienced; and the final series of dishes made me want to become Oton’s first live-in customer. It was a grand finale of Marinated Black Cod, Chicken Oysters, and Organic Vegetable Tempura—three very different dishes with the Marinated Black Cod brought to us next as the proverbial cherry on top. Imagine a perfectly blackened, crusted skin of a large cut of ivory cod that just emanates tenderness? Luckily, I am fortunate enough to have it manifest in front of me, but let me say this; I’ll have reoccurring daydreams about it for some time. All at once, Reiko presents us with a serving of Chicken Oysters, seared bite-sized pieces of richly flavored chicken on skewers; a crispy fried Flatfish with flaky pieces practically falling of the bones; and Vegetable Tempura compiled of delicately breaded, organic brussels sprouts and yams, shipped in from Chino Farms; all of which comes steaming hot and loaded with incredible freshness. By my last sprout, looking at the table in front of me, I can’t help but note the entire expanse this izakaya’s menu covers. From poultry, to beef, to organic vegetarian dishes, the options lend themselves to make Oton a choice destination for events, business meetings, and unique dates; there is something for everyone.
Our hostess, Tomoko returns to check on us and asks if we would care for anything else. At this point in time, I’m to the brim of Japanese delicacies and sampling anything else would be unadulterated gluttony. But then she mentions dessert, so any shame immediately gets tossed out the window. As we wait for her to return bearing gifts, the hum of the restaurant is a quiet one, yet lively. Progressively getting busier and busier, I can constantly hear the warm welcomes by the wait staff, never veering far off from their high standards of service. Tomoko returns with a lighter version of a Panna Cotta made with Chino Farms organic strawberries. Seeing as the dessert changes on a regular basis, I was more than happy to catch this one during my visit. Light and creamy, with natural sweetness from vibrant berries made this a more than fitting finish to our meal.
As we relish in our satiated selves, Tomoko gives us a tour of the place. She lets us peek into a visiting family’s meal, wherein the walls separating the booths have been removed to accommodate more people: it’s an intimate and warm way to dine with friends and family, and it made me wish it was the way I could always eat! People from every ethnicity are found in the already booked rooms; Tomoko notes that they receive a wide variety of patrons, young, old, couples, or families.
My guest and I are fortunate enough to meet Chef Aiko Ishito, Oton’s head chef. Before his current position, he was chef at his own restaurant in Little Japan up in Los Angeles. His weathered hands, politely folded in front of his apron, are a noticeable testament to his well-practiced vocation. He started his cooking career back in Japan over thirty-seven years ago and hasn’t stemmed far Chef Ishito upholds unshaken authenticity that few establishments can.
As Tomoko walks us out, she bears an enormous grin and genuinely gives us gratitude for dining with them. I’ve never been so appreciated for eating! But after one visit, I get the sense that such treatment is the only way they operate: respectable in every sense, with kind service, and traditional hospitality, all served alongside a flawless menu; Robata-ya Oton will be a meal unlike most.
Insider Tip: Great food and service make for a busy restaurant! Be sure to book in advance if you’d like a private booth, otherwise there is bar seating typically available.