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October 11, 2007

The Gadabout—October 12, 2007

As a sister restaurant to the molecular gastronomy temple moto, OTOM makes a name out of opposites.

At the dead center of the Jungle-like, industrial part of the West Loop (complete with butcher smells and warehouses), OTOM is reminiscent of a sleek oasis. With minimalist white chairs, black tables, and hardwood floors accented by sheer gray drapes and hip pinstripes in bold red, orange, and turquoise, plus $12 specialty martinis, it’s a setting straight out of Sex and the City. Although it tends to look abandoned around 6:30 even on a Saturday night, OTOM transforms into a bustling haven ready to serve the late-night, bar-hopping 20- to 30-something crowd.

OTOM’s concept is simple by design and contrary by name—gourmet old-fashioned American fare, otherwise known as comfort food, with a highfalutin’ twist. Miniature hamburgers of the ’50s sport quail eggs, bacon and cheddar. Pork ribs of the Ribs ’n’ Bibs variety come with sherry slaw, and your standard banana split is topped off with peanut praline and roasted pineapple. The sophistication of the food could come off as grossly pretentious, but despite the Wikipedia-worthy ingredients, OTOM simply produces a more appetizing version of humdrum predecessors.

Take the macaroni and cheese ($14), for example. From the rectangular iron vessel to the accenting sprig of rosemary—all contained in an indented wooden tray—the macaroni is raised from its populist state of Kraft to a state of Zen. The cheese gradient, from gooey white cheddar on the bottom to dry parmesan-panko crumble on the top, gives each bite a delicious depth with the right textures, while embedded carrot and rosemary add small bursts of color and flavor for an ideal take on this classic entrée.

The beef short rib ravioli ($18) with shallots, sage goat cheese, and brown butter are both delicious and interesting. Three large, triangular ravioli are stuffed with succulent and tender shredded beef that blankets cubes of a vegetable later identified as candied sweet potato—we suspected carrots. The various cheese, meat, and sweet potato flavors in this dish combine in a tasty fashion, but the intensity of the short rib seems to overpower everything else. Not that this is cause for complaint.

Sweet potatoes reappear from their hiding spot for the dessert menu with spectacular results. The sweet potato flan ($9) combines the best of the traditional flan and potato worlds, creating a hybrid flan that turns out slightly denser but much more flavorful than your run-of-the-mill flan. Fragrant-roasted pecans accompany the dessert along with a small amount of buttermilk granita, the Italian cousin of sorbet (according to Wikipedia).

The other two desserts on the menu—the apple crumble and the brownie and ice cream sundae—are just as mind-numbingly marvelous in both flavor and creativity. The warm brownie, swathed in a delicate moat of chocolate sauce and candied walnuts, is a black hole of rich chocolate from which coffee ice cream provides a necessary life raft. The teeny marshmallows surrounding the brownie are the classy cousins of the ones that provide the sole reason for buying Lucky Charms or Swiss Miss. The apple crumble, tinged with cinnamon and coated in walnuts and oatmeal, is served in another iron urn, this time with homemade vanilla ice cream as decoration. The crumble is the analogous fruit dessert to the brownie, heavenly where the brownie was sinful.

The service, like the food, walks the line but ultimately escapes death by pomp. Not long after we sat down, our designated bread person (different from a waiter) appeared and offered us three kinds of bread: caramelized onion pumpernickel, multigrain honey wheat, and baguette. The protocol requires politely asking for a type and receiving it via stainless steel tongs, and we were slightly afraid of coming off as gauche. However, the bread person seemed happy to help us mix and match breads, and our jeans-clad server seemed just as happy to recommend items.

OTOM dresses up familiar food to the point where it has nowhere to go except your stomach. Since it could never make it as a date spot for U of C students, and it’s probably a stretch even for special occasions, OTOM is probably best reserved for an evening when you want to go incognito as a real person who has $20 to spend on a dinner entrée. The food and service are impeccable, and if our experience was any indication, it’s very possible to get in without a wait before 6:30 on a Saturday night. The ultimate question one should ask of OTOM is not whether or not it’s affordable, but rather, “Do I like the idea of eating a quail egg on my mini-hamburger?”

—Sheila Rajagopal and Clay Smith