Otho: grafting onto Asian roots

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I haven’t figured out what a “street lounge” is, but I’m certain of this much: This one is a great new place to hang.

The street in question is the intersection of 10th & Portland, where the whatever-it-is with a restaurant behind it anchors a sleek, new condo tower. If a meal ticket were included in the mortgage payment, I’d move in.

Otho beckons like a mirage amid urban dwellings on this under-served edge of downtown Minneapolis. And, as a further lesson in supply-and-demand economics, a sign in an adjoining storefront promises that a gourmet wine shop also is on the way.

Otho Restaurant & Street Lounge

949 Portland Avenue S., Mpls.

612-455-1516, www.othorestaurant.com


Back to Otho: The corner-side lounge space and the small but shining bar that serves it, dressed in warm and simple tones, stays open until 2 a.m., offering a long list of the kind of cocktails sipped by children who can’t stand the taste of alcohol. But I’m here to tell you about the restaurant. Just when you think—ho hum—there’s nothing more new under the sun (or on top of the stove), along comes someone like Otho Phanthavong to jolt you out of your dining ennui.

His parents once were involved in St. Paul’s Pad Thai café, while the young man himself has put in cooking stints in the avant kitchens of Zander and duplex. And it’s exactly that combination of heritage and training that makes Otho’s menu so inviting. Let’s be up front with another bonus, too: It’s amazingly affordable. All appetizers fly beneath the $10 radar and entrees have a hard time rising to $16 at their most extravagant.

Buster’s on 28thHis inspired (but not wacky) creations play off familiar pan-Asian dishes with spot-on additions of ingredients from the Caribbean and beyond. Case in point: the must-have starter is a Korean barbecued pork empanada. Its tender, flaky crust holds pulled pork from Minnesota’s own Fischer Farms, melded with golden raisins and onions. Their subtle sweetness adds a swell accent to the rich and tender meat, for sure, but it’s also the decoy for a bait-and-switch as you drag a bite through the dynamite, chili-fired mayo on the plate.

The meaty (but boring) pork dumplings—short on the advertised ginger, alas—taste like your usual dim-sum staple—until you swipe them through the accompanying slightly sweet, scallion-soy vinaigrette with a kick of Thai chilies.

I’ll run back (from anywhere, anytime) for the scrumptious crab cake starter, too—minimally fried, supremely sweet, moist seafood pocked with the crunch of water chestnuts and the unexpected slither of shiitake mushrooms. Another winning sauce (clearly Otho’s forte) appears—this time, a zesty citrus mayo.

The kitchen offers straight-up Asian dishes, too—such as rice paper rolls filled with chicken, mock duck or shrimp along with the usual veggies and rice noodles. But a fourth variation features asparagus and prosciutto: vegetal crunch and the salt of cured meat—an interesting experiment if not necessarily worth ordering twice.

(Other riffs on customary Asian starters include shrimp toast—here fashioned of shrimp mousse baked on toasted brioche with jalapeno-mango relish: See what I mean?) and salads such as roasted beets with pickled onions, walnuts and fried plantains in a kaffir lime vinaigrette.

Next, you can have your choice of stir-fries ($12 range); but don’t linger there when more exciting entrees are on offer. We loved the rainbow trout en croute: sweet, juicy flesh enrobed in egg roll paper along with spinach and mushroom confit and accompanied by maybe the star of the evening, a deftly-fried potato croquette—crunchy and colorful, thanks to a handful of edamame beans. A fruity beurre blanc knits the whole lovely plate together.

The pork tenderloin massaman curry is not his grandma’s curry. Instead, Otho calls on slices of pork tenderloin, rather than shreds, and adds fingerling potatoes, woodear mushrooms, green peas, fried leeks and currants to the party. For me, it came off as a little too gentrified, but it’s clear what he’s trying to achieve. (There’s also a red curry fusion of linguine, clams, spinach, tomatoes and more in a lobster-red curry broth, untasted).

I enjoyed the Cantonese braised short ribs, but my companions didn’t share this judgment. Lots of braised-forever meat came mounded atop a puree of black beans, along with sweet red and jalapeno peppers, scallions and shiitakes. Okay, I’ll admit it was kind of a muddy plate. Got the message.

Otho boasts an in-house pastry chef (how rare is that, these days?), so don’t say I didn’t warn you. Save room. Particularly for the poached pear, served in a gorgeous presentation over pastry cream striped with black currant coulis and topped with a toss of pomegranate seeds. The evening’s special was nirvana, too—a square of dark chocolate steamed pudding atop a passion fruit spoom (new to me, too: defined as a cross between a frothy sorbet and a meringue, and that’s pretty accurate), along with raspberry puree. My friends (or should I say, ex-friends? True friends would never treat poor moi like this) talked me out of the sweet potato steamed pudding served with Guinness ginger foam, candied walnuts and raisins in a sherry reduction. (desserts $8).

The wine list, while affordable, doesn’t excite. But everything else does; The room and the service are equally warm, inviting and low-key. Nice addition to this part of the city.