Echo Park’s New Sake Bar, Ototo

A minimal but warm space that aims to make the Japanese tipple more approachable

Ototo is a venture for chef Charles Namba and sommelier Courtney Kaplan (of Tsubaki next door) to share their joint passion for sake and food. While Namba helms the kitchen, Kaplan is sharing her extensive knowledge of sake—telling vivid stories of breweries throughout Japan—and recommending sakes to bar-goers, who range from rookies to experts.

The food and sake at Ototo (and the pairings that occur) may be the primary draw, but the space itself is equally striking. For the design, Namba and Kaplan brought several photos of restaurants in Japan to David Rager and Cheri Messerli of Weekends, the design team that created the restaurant’s interiors and branding. Namba particularly like the wood interiors of sushi bars in Japan and asked the team to help create a similar feeling.

“All the wood is white oak, the bar front and private dining area exterior are inspired by a shou sugi ban technique,” says Rager. “The south wall has a grey plaster treatment, the cushion fabric on the banquettes was sent over by Charles’ parents from Kyoto, along with hand-sewn noren linen curtains that Cheri fabricated.” The result is minimal, but still rich and warm. “All the chairs, stools, and table tops were designed by us, and built locally in Chinatown by furniture-maker Elliott Marks, who’s been a friend of David’s since elementary school,” Messerli tells us.

A large photo from Japanese art collective Kojiki Girls hangs on the wall of the small private dining area, which is cozy, but built to maximize the space. “It can function as two single tables. We’ve got jump seats built into the walls that flip up, kind of the way some tiny apartments might have a table surface that flips up from the wall,” explains Rager. “There’s a middle leaf that can be added to join the two surfaces to create a room that can hold 10 or more. It’s able to serve folks for a quick bite before a Dodgers game, since the stadium is across the street or folks who want to spend the entire evening with us.”

“The most important thing for me is I wanted it to put the bar at the center making it a focal point of the room,” explains Kaplan. The result is an expansive white oak bar, where there’s plenty of room for bartenders and guests to interact. “We have no back bar at all, no shelf behind us. That’s why we put that big soffit piece over the bar,” says Kaplan. “For me, it feels very Japanese. We can keep our glassware in there and back-up bottles. It is accessible to the bartenders, but not visible to the guests.”

Now that she has the new bar open, Kaplan has a forum to continue to share her immense enthusiasm for sake—which was nurtured while working at Sake Bar Decibel in New York and at restaurants in Japan. She also connects her experience with wine to her approach in sharing the tasting notes for sakes. Kaplan aims to make the interaction as informative and comfortable as looking at a list of wines. They regularly have meetings with the staff to learn about new sakes being added to their menu, including seasonal offerings.

“Sake gets short-changed a lot in the US,” explains Kaplan. “People can be intimidated and scared by it. I wanted to create a space like a wine bar—people are not afraid to go into a wine bar and order a glass of wine. We want people in LA to really start having fun with sake.”

When a guest is reading their extensive sake menu and asks for recommendations, Kaplan and her servers have a game plan. She says, “We ask for one or two words to describe the experience they are looking for. Or I ask what do you like to drink when you drink wine? Or what types of spirits do you like? And try to get a sense of their palette from there. Do you like something fruity? Do you like something aromatic? Do you like earthy? Do you like savory? Do you want something crisp and fresh? I try to put words in front of them and see what resonates.”

Regarding the menu, the management and design teams created hand-written wooden tiles to display the names of sake available by the glass. “It feels a bit like the staff notes on a shelf at a book or record store, and Courtney’s descriptions are also amazing,” Messerli says.

These conversations also led to Ototo’s mascot: a cute, sake-chugging cat. Rager tapped illustrator Jackie Chang to develop the visual story for the brand. Another choice that is not only visually appealing, but also makes sake more accessible, is that when the sake menu is folded open, Chang’s illustrations show the sake-making process.

One sake worth noting—served at the opening celebration—comes in a dark brown bottle with a navy blue label. This crisp sake, made from ginpu rice, is from the Kunimare brewery in Hokkaido—the northernmost brewery in Japan. It’s just one of the many distinct, thoughtful options available.

Also at the event, a sake barrel was placed near the front door to share a traditional Japanese ritual, kagami biraki. Kaplan explains, “Kagami biraki means ‘to break the mirror’ or ‘to open the mirror.’ It is something you will see for celebration of a new spot.” While it traditionally occurs on 11 January, the ritual can be held at various ceremonies, celebrations and parties. Kaplan tells us, “One of our sake importers brought the barrel with the special fake top that we smashed open. It is a fun way for everyone to share a new beginning.”

Images courtesy of Wyatt Conlon for Tsubaki