Experience at the new Chotto is now centered confidently around the culinary delights. And the dishes certainly bring a smile to your face. These are works of arts, artisan wonders, beautifully created, the colors and textures adding to the sensory experience. Everything here is designed to be unique, from the bespoke furniture to the commissioned artwork, even the plates, created by an unnamed artisan (he won’t divulge the maker) who Zdesar happened upon on a family vacation. They act as the chef’s canvas with shapes and colors designed to complement each dish. The new Chotto offers a more adult form of culinary theater.
“The brand is my baby and I have a very strong idea as to what it should be,” says Zdesar as, chopsticks in hand, we dig into our first dish. The dragon roll happens to pair perfectly with the Pietrarizzo Etna Bianco, from the Tornatore estate in Sicily. “Everything we do is about being honest, original and unique. The product, the ingredients, the wines, they all have to be the best we can source.” Zdesar trained as a chef but stepped away from the kitchen a long time ago. “Now I work side-by-side with our head chef Jordan Sclare, constantly evolving the menu. We’ve worked together for almost 30 years, so he understands my mental vision and has the skills to recreate it.”
He tells me his first Chotto menu mood-board featured pictures of art and architecture, of textiles, color palates and powder paint used in Peru to paint walls – everything other than food. For Zdesar it is about mood creation. “The dishes are artistic, as are the plates and how we serve the food. I see it as craft and artistry as much as a meal.” As if to prove this point, the Argentinian red prawn truffles arrive. The sculptural dish is meant to mimic a black truffle, meanwhile inside these rough looking parcels are delicate sweet prawns, with the whole thing infused with truffle, which pairs well with our Tornatore Etna Rosso.
We discuss how with most dishes, typically the full satisfaction arrives in those first few mouthfuls, after which the excitement levels dip. It therefore follows that smaller portions that are made to be shared, say nine courses, will provide nine flavor profiles. So, to ensure guests experience a full flavor journey, Chotto has put together set tasting menus, including a plant based and vegan one.
“If our guests decide to choose individual dishes, we steer them away from ordering two with miso in a row, instead making sure they have a journey of flavors and temperatures,” he says. “Nikkei does this so well. You can start with a light dish with citrus notes that get your appetite going, follow with a richer fried dish, and continue with a lighter acidic dish, such as a ceviche.”
Zdesar is working hard for the restaurants to be as organic and mindful of waste and the environment as possible. He is also keen to support locals. “Like our food supply chain, our wine program is about supporting the local talent, local vineyards and local economies.” He sees customers drinking wines from their own region; wines they are more familiar with. Chotto Miami therefore may feature a high dose of American wines, but since the customers tend to be well traveled, the program also has interesting world wines. It’s about adapting to each region: “In Milan and Rome Italian wines will feature heavily. If we don’t, there will be carnage,” he says jokingly.
For easy navigation Chotto breaks its wine program into sections: light, medium and full bodied. That, alongside the descriptive notes and flavor profile, helps the customer choose independently, although there is a sommelier at hand to help. The other criteria is to offer wines that are a reminder of certain classics but can be served at a more affordable price. He feels New World wines can offer a chance to explore great wines within the budget to broaden people’s experience and create a more interesting wine list.
Zdesar admits the wine program is evolving with the customer profile. In Toronto, where Chotto has been voted best restaurant in the city, the location underneath the stock exchange means guests are corporate types who are likely to spend generously on wine. The same applies to Miami, where Chotto customers are on vacation and will spend money for a fun experience. He is excited to see the development in San Francisco and Los Angeles.
In San Francisco, Chotto will be just off Union Square, right in the heart of the city, in a purpose-built restaurant space. The Beverly Hills restaurant is on North Cannon Drive, with a rooftop overlooking the hills and onto the Hollywood sign in the distance. “I’m setting up a permanent telescope,” he muses. And since it’s al fresco dining, the wine program will feature high on whites and rosés, many of which are likely to be from California vineyards.
We have brought along two wines from The Language of Yes, a producer from Santa Maria Valley, in California’s central coast. The Grenache we pair with Barriguita de chanchito, a rich and spicy dish of pork belly. Meanwhile the Syrah is a marriage made in heaven with the Chuleta de cordero ahumada, a flavorsome delicate lamb chop, a dish inspired by my host’s travels to the stylish Greek island of Mykonos. Another layer added to the tapestry of Nikkei as it sets sail around the world in a culinary migration of sorts.