There are no California rolls at Robata-ya Oton. For dessert, don't expect tempura-fried green-tea ice cream drizzled with chocolate sauce and dressed with a paper umbrella. There's a Shogun for that—and it's only a parking lot away.
Unlike the multi-roomed behemoth, Robata-ya Oton (5447 Kearny Villa Road in Kearny Mesa) does not self-orientalize. Trust me, you won't miss the kitsch. The Japanese, home-style fare served at this hole-in-the-wall is gentle and elaborate and free of cartoonish add-ons.
Detailed yet straightforward, the décor follows a similar storyline. There are six private rooms—separated by shoji screens—a modest, albeit somewhat cramped, bar and one wooden booth. Leaving the sun-blasted parking lot for Robata-ya Oton's cool and quiet interior is a softening experience, like stepping into a secret hideaway.
A sister restaurant to Wa Okan Dining, Robata-ya Oton offers a long menu that can be difficult to navigate—especially if you arrive hungry, as you should. A second, seasonal menu will add to your confusion. I advise bringing a pen and paper, so that you can map out your meal and savor a wide assortment of dishes.
Whatever you do, though, don't miss out on the buri kama, or grilled yellowtail cheek. Our server, Tokomo, moved from Japan three years ago to work at Robata-ya Oton and now manages the place. She suggested we try the fish dish, saying it's one of the restaurant's most popular.
Kama is the fish collar, an oddly shaped, almost hook-like piece that's richly flavorful, thanks to its high fat content. Oton serves the buri kama with a lemon wedge—the only dressing it needs. Crisped, almost blackened skin gives way to oily, supple meat. I remember being skeptical of comparisons made between buri kama and pork belly. Now, I totally get it.
A pitter-patter of small plates followed, led by a milky block of chilled tofu topped with green onion and grated ginger. Refreshing in its coolness, the mildly flavored yakko's main draw is its texture, which brings to mind the cream-based Italian dessert panna cotta.
There are also thin, soft slices of grilled duck served alongside grated wasabi, and coins of lightly seared beef, or gyu-tataki, that you dip into a tart ponzu sauce.
You might find the grilled beef tongue too chewy, though. The skewered, gumball-size pieces are tough and firm and better left alone. Go for the karaage, or fried chicken, instead: The easy-to-eat, two-bite chunks are addictive and pair exquisitely with a lemony mayonnaise.
Just as I decided I couldn't eat any more food, I discovered a menu section titled "Closing dishes." Curious, I asked Tokomo about it. In Japan, she said, diners often stunt the effect of the alcohol they've imbibed with a bowl of noodles.
A few minutes later, the buckwheat noodles arrived at our table, swirled with mushrooms and swathed in a hot, silky soup. But the meal didn't end there. The green-tea pudding is excellent, Tokomo said. Prepared in-house by chef Koichi Yamamoto, the pudding melted in my mouth. In between spoonfuls, I told Tokomo just how right she was.