Comfort food ditches its country image at Moto's sister spot.
Stiletto-heeled women sip martinis and lounge on ottomans near a mirrored fireplace. A large group of toned and tanned diners in their early thirties makes their way to an austere white table flanked by Nehi-orange chairs. Ambiguous house music glides out of the speakers as deftly as the Levi’s ad–ready servers, clad in dark denim and crisp white shirts. None of this is surprising to find in a month-old restaurant on the warehouse-weighted strip of Fulton Market. What is surprising is that the suspected sushi or small plates equated with scenes like this are nowhere in sight; they’ve been replaced with mac and cheese, ham hock–studded greens and buttery fried fish.
Otom’s comfort-food menu isn’t just a stark departure from its environs, it’s what sets it apart from its adjacent sibling Moto, the house that molecular gastronomy built. And science-minded chef Homaro Cantu isn’t behind Otom’s food; that job’s been given to former Moto cook Daryl Nash. The concept of plopping simple, accessible, lowbrow food into a decidedly stylish, contemporary setting is surely an attempt to bring in everyday-dining cash flow to boost the special-occasion revenue of Moto. So far, it seems to be working, as the room hosts a steady stream of diners.
On any other stage, people might balk at a $14 mac and cheese (pictured), even if the penne pasta swims in velvety Gruyère along with rounds of spicy andouille sausage. With this dish, and a few others, the price tends to creep up as an issue of value, weighted against the overall shoulder-shrug feeling evoked by unimpressive flavors. Most items—grilled cheese with prosciutto, a trio of miniburgers, bresaola tossed with arugula and apples, a bowl of fried vegetables with a basic rémoulade—are fine, good even, but a little boring.
Where Nash succeeds most is with dishes that pack a surprise element. Phonebook-thick filets of buttery cod engulfed in crunchy bread crumbs could nostalgically be linked to Van de Kamp’s, but smoky hunks of bacon hiding in a pile of cheesy grits helps make the dish memorable. Similarly, a garnish of crackly corn brittle adds textural interest and extra flavor to the roasted monkfish and its bed of braised greens. And at dessert, a cast-iron crock of bubbling-hot cherries becomes a fantastic cobbler once diners crack through the flaky, oversize crust blanketing the dish. Essentially, it’s cherry pie with vanilla ice cream. But in these surroundings, it had to step up its game to get noticed.
951 W Fulton Mkt between Sangamon and Morgan Sts (312-491-5804). El: Green to Clinton. Bus: 8 Halsted, 20 Madison (24hrs). Dinner. Average main course: $18.