by Tiffany Apczynski
Born in Madrid, Spain, Armando Justo has a culinary background deeply entrenched in European cuisine. So, the fact that the young chef is helming a traditional Japanese izakaya is, well, unexpected. But Justo, who cut his teeth while serving as sous-chef at Ozumo and Yoshi’s in San Francisco, boldly struck out on his own recently with Chotto, a Japanese izakaya located in the city’s Marina neighborhood. The decision so far seems to be a very good one.
What’s most impressive about Justo’s menu is its accessibility. Whether you eat Japanese food three to four times a week or a year, Chotto’s menu will keep experienced palates excited and curious, and less experienced palates open to new dishes and flavor profiles. Meanwhile, its warm, welcoming atmosphere makes it a great neighborhood restaurant to drop in for a drink and simply a few nibbles.
Izakaya is the same concept as tapas: a full menu of small plates perfect for sharing. This makes Justo’s solo journey into Japanese cuisine even that much more impressive. He’s created a menu with close to 30 items on it, not to mention a killer raw bar menu.
It can be very difficult to whittle down your choices, but we finally settled on the kani su, a salad of delicate snow crab with hearty yam, ginger, and cucumber. Its simplicity allows each flavor to pop and wind up being a very nuanced dish.
From there, we savored an artful presentation of gorgeous, deep red hunks of bigeye tuna. Justo’s raw bar is impressive, and it alone is worth the trip.
Striped bass grilled with shiso-lemon butter might not leap out at you from the menu, but it’s a must. It’s shockingly flavorful and the crispy skin adds the perfect amount of fat. Seriously, don’t skip it.
Another showstopper: the snow crab croquettes with creamy miso. It’s essentially a Japanese crabcake, but there is a silkiness and creaminess to these little bites that is unprecedented. If these were served in a giant popcorn bucket, I could probably polish off every last one.
The bacon-wrapped mochi with nori, though you think it would automatically succeed because of the bacon factor, is actually one of the weaker items on the menu. Worth trying for sure, but it lacks a certain punch and the takeaway is greasy more than anything else.
Next on the agenda: chicken meatballs with egg yolk. A teriyaki glaze gives way to tender, moistness that actually is quite good alone. The yolk does add a richness and silkiness, but Justo’s chicken meatballs are so succulent, they almost could be duck.
One word of advice: save room for the ramen. Even if you are uncomfortably full (which we were), one sip of its velvety broth that’s been simmering for 48 hours and you will find that secret compartment in your stomach that allows you to keep going.
Chotto’s sake menu features lots of tasting notes, making this enigmatic spirit less intimidating. Trying a flight is highly recommended.
Really, Justo has created something special here. He’s injected his own style and background to very traditional dishes, all the while staying true to Japanese cuisine’s core principles. This is a chef that is at once showing deep respect for izakaya tradition, and also seamlessly incorporating his own creative touches and flourishes.
You can click on each photo to enlarge to see dishes from Chotto’s restaurant menu.