Wednesday, December 19, 2007
Otto is one of those places that seems to appear just as much in gossip columns as it does in restaurant reviews. It's a celebrity honeypot - snaring famous faces from all up and down the A-Z list. And even if you're not into food, you'll recognise Otto for its association with presenter John Laws, who was in the news all over again with this mid-dining outburst.
So maybe that's why (pricetag aside) I've always thought of Otto as one of those restaurants other people eat at. Its mythical status sparkled some more for me when Will described his visits there, and how the olive oil and bread alone were so good that his mother was compelled to bounty-hunt the specific brand they use and snare herself (and him) a bottle.
When I learnt that Otto had a vegan menu (a discovery that synched up perfectly with my friend Tabitha's recent vegan-converting status), I thought it was time we try it out for a Christmas treat.
When you look past the celebrity haze, it's worth remembering Otto does sport a chef's hat and a rep for good food - and we were going to try it out (no-listers that we were).
Set on the wharf, with a water view crowded with bobbing boats, it's curious that a ritzy place like Otto even has a vegan menu. (Especially as it's hard enough to get vegetarian dishes, let alone vegan food, at more la-di-da restaurants.)
My guess was perhaps someone in the kitchen had a vegan daughter that had swayed their sympathies to broadening their menu. Tabs thought otherwise, and that it was the presence of Andrew G-type celeb vegans that had resulted in such catering for animal-product-avoiding diners. Either way, we did get a surprised look when we asked for the vegan choices.
Or maybe the vegan menu was on Otto's website as a prank! A ruse to amuse themselves and the truth was they actually didn't expect any vegan-inclined folks to actually turn up and ORDER something from it. Or so we joked.
Well, the menu was not a lame gag at all - it was pretty good. Especially the Asparagi Con Funghi In Tegame ($24), a gorgeous and scraggly bed of sauteed wild and cultivated mushrooms, served with asparagus and a pretty sprinkling of parsley and chervil. Instead of the heavy, overbuttered feel that you often get with fried mushrooms, this dish was laced with a lingering and refreshing savouriness, with hints of truffle flavour.
Tabs pointed out that if this was simply a vego dish, it'd be full of cheese and butter - which is true, that seems to be the only way a lot of chefs can deal with putting together a meatless meal. But with dairy exiled from the ingredients list because it was a vegan no-no, that meant this entree was just so zingy and light instead.
It was the same with the Strozzapreti Pasta With Cherry and Yellow Baby Tomatoes main ($34): a bright serve of spring vegetables and pasta topped off with a colourful zucchini flower. It was flavoursome rather than cloying and rich: you didn't end up feeling like your stomach was knotted into one big cheeseball after you'd finish eating.
Now, one of the big drawcards to Otto was their dessert menu. I'd checked when I'd booked a few weeks back that they had various vegan dessert choices, and there were at least three that you'd want to attack immediately with an oversized spoon. When I looked again the day before we were going, the desserts list had been transformed into a big creamy and dairy fest. As a staff member re-confirmed my booking, I asked whether there were any vegan-friendly sweets. It seemed strange that they could offer entrees and mains that don't contain animal-derived ingredients, but go cold on the best course that there is. The woman on the phone wasn't very sympathetic when I explained Tabs was a vegan. In fact, her response was simply: "Your friend can have fruit." Whoa. 'Cos that's what you go to a one-chef restaurant for! The sliced fruit!
I pushed it a little further and got a tiny concession - "you can ask the chef on the day".
Well, it turns out that there is an official dessert for vegans on the menu - Selection of Sorbets and Fruits ($18). It's quite a slug for four scoops of overly sweet strawberry and redcurrant ice (with no fruit, after all that!), but it is presented in a very cute selection of teacups.
Non-vegans do score better on the sweet-tooth front, it's true. I was seam-bursting stuffed, but I'm glad Tabs swayed me into getting the "Tiramisu", an inventive and truly dreamy deconstruction of the traditional liqueur-and-coffee-soaked sponge. The Tiramisu comes in a martini glass, with layers of chocolate panna cotta and mascarpone sabayon. At the bottom is a snug serving of amaretto jelly, just big enough to hide an almond. It's a cute surprise to scoop up the nut when you've crossed the finishing line. Oh, and I mustn't forget that this all comes with a spry l'il caramel spring on top, and a cup of espresso granita that is so tingly and flavoursome that I'm almost compelled to up my not-so-daily coffee intake.
This swoony dessert is quite possibly the best "tiramisu" I've had (in fact, it's such a convincing reinvention that it makes me think the traditional version should be entirely trashed in favour of this high improvement). It's a rich and ridiculously filling note to end our lunch on.
In fact, I'm so full that I can feel my stomach rekink itself and realign in shape in trying to fit all this expensive food in. I don't need to eat again for another 24 hours because I've had such an excessive feed - something I've never experienced, given that I'm "three square meals a day" girl.
As for whether we've scored on the celeb-spotting front, that's debatable. Tabs thinks she sees a Peter Cundall doppelganger (he of "Gardening Australia" fame), but that's about it. I do feel like a bit of income bracket tourist though, and there's no doubting that I am out of my paypacket league just sitting in this waterside restaurant.
There was one cheeky thing that happened at Otto that day. Shortly after I arrived, I heard one group of diners complain that they'd asked for a table outside on the wharf, yet were being tucked on a table inside the restaurant. The waitress explained that they were fully booked and had been for ages, so unfortunately it couldn't be helped. Over the next three hours though, only half the tables on the wharf remained filled. Unless there was a high level of last-minute bookings that were cancelled, it seemed like the favourable wharf-positioned tables were being saved for more "important" folks.
Or maybe they figured this group of diners were really messy eaters, and didn't want any passersby to witness the food splatter and stainage.
Let's hope that these people ended up so food-sated that it didn't matter where they were sitting. Leave the location-consciousness to the strategically-seated celeb hoping to land a mention in a gossip column.
Otto, Shop 8, 6 Cowper Wharf Rd, Woolloomooloo NSW, (02) 9368 7488, www.otto.net.au.