Otho: Pioneers of Portland Avenue

And the beets go on: Chef Otho Phanthavong and his roasted beet salad

And the beets go on: Chef Otho Phanthavong and his roasted beet salad

949 Portland Ave. S., Minneapolis
612.455.1516 •
entrées $10-$16; appetizers $6-$9

The inevitability of change is that someone always has to go first. Whether signing the Constitution or stepping out in public wearing a pair of Zubaz, the risk of being an early adopter is that sometimes you get in too early. What good is owning the first Betamax if video stores don't yet stock the tapes? What good is opening the first upscale restaurant in a gentrifying neighborhood if there aren't enough customers?

Otho is a pan-Asian-fusion restaurant that opened this past fall in the sleek Skyscape condo building in Elliot Park, one such up-and-coming neighborhood. When the condo craze hit, developers flocked to the area. But when the housing market tanked, so did hopes for an Elliot Park revival. As I headed out of downtown Minneapolis proper, skyscrapers transitioned to dingy apartment complexes and sleepy commercial buildings. I started pre-apologizing to my guests, lest we were the only people in the restaurant. Elliot Park hasn't yet become a destination: There's no theater or nightlife and little retail activity. As of the 2000 census, its residents had an average income that was half that of the rest of the city, and twice the city's rate of poverty. It's done better since: The neighborhood's bar-stumbling proximity to downtown makes it a promising bedroom bunker for urbanites. New condos in the area are owned by young lawyers, financial analysts, and even U.S. Senate candidate Al Franken.

The first time I visited Otho, post-dinner on a weeknight, I peeked in the windows—the restaurant is all windows, as if prepared for the eventual arrival of foot traffic—and found it was actually kind of busy. Not so much the dining room, which is open and airy, with leather banquettes and warm orange accents, where a few groups were finishing their meals. But plenty of people were gathered in the adjacent bar, furnished with concrete floors, sheet metal, and sometimes-too-bright track lighting. (The restaurant's "industrial chic" look works everywhere but the restroom stalls. After latching the immense metal door, it's just you, a concrete floor, and a toilet—a little too close to a solitary confinement cell.) The best thing about the space may be its versatility. There's a dark, secluded booth for privacy seekers and a circular lounge for groups to cluster on ottomans, but it's also a comfortable place to sit by yourself at the bar. One night, the owner played chess with a patron, while the bartender dealt cards to another.

The restaurant's owners are in the same age bracket as their late-night clientele. Chef Otho Phanthavong, 28, launched his culinary career in high school, waiting tables at Pad Thai Grand in St. Paul, the restaurant his parents co-owned. After culinary school, he cooked at Zander Café and Duplex for a few years. When his parents sold their share in Pad Thai Grand and offered to help with financing, Otho partnered with his brother, Kap, and a former Zander co-worker, Tina Schubert, and went into business together.

The restaurant's menu has two distinct sections: Otho handles the upscale Asian-fusion appetizers and entrées, while his mom takes care of the home cooking, such as egg rolls and stir fries. Otho's dishes reminded me a lot of those at Duplex—finer dining than what you'd expect for entrées priced between $12 and $16. His rainbow trout en croûte nails gourmet-on-a-budget: The fillet is packaged in spring roll paper, then pan-fried and baked so it's crunchy on the outside and juicy within. The fish is served on a bed of cooked spinach and mushrooms, with a pool of beurre blanc that's brightened with yuzu (a Japanese citrus that tastes a bit like grapefruit and tangerine). The dish comes with a few textbook croquettes—panko-breaded exteriors, pillowy potato interiors—that are like a grown-up version of Taco John's Potato Olés. Between the crisp spring roll wrapper and croquette crust, the tender fish and greens, and the buttery bite of beurre blanc, it's a perfectly balanced composition.

When the rest of the entrées are as successful as the trout, Otho could become a destination, but for now many dishes seem like they're still being refined. The Cantonese short ribs were marinated and braised to a spicy lusciousness, but the accompanying black bean purée seemed all wrong, with a soft saltiness too similar to that of the meat. The salmon dish is a special Otho used to make at Zander: a pretty, black-and-white-sesame-crusted fillet in a tasty miso-tomato broth, with kale, edamame, mushroom, grape tomatoes, and pearl onions. When I ordered it, though, the fish was overcooked and of Atlantic origin—I would have preferred to pay a little more for wild-caught Pacific salmon. The mock beef Wellington was a vegetarian dish attempting to be something it probably shouldn't have. When I bit into the flaky pastry, I couldn't help but conjure memories of luxurious tenderloin, which doomed the mushroom and mock duck I found within. My vegetarian friend was disappointed, too, due to the off-putting sweetness of its Hoisin/curry sauce and odd relish of tofu, cauliflower, and bean sprouts—quirky loners of the kitchen that don't just pair with anything. The combination of the three was not a happy union.

Right now, Otho seems to work best as a pre- or post-dinner hangout, as it has great drink and appetizer lists. The open-faced pork dumplings, garlic-and-ginger-heavy meatballs tucked into dumpling-wrapper cups, won me over as soon as the server set them on the table. Sprinkled with panko breadcrumbs, sesame seeds, and a tangle of sliced green onions, they looked as pretty as blossoming flowers and tasted better than the usual concealed versions. The cheeky cream-cheese-stuffed wontons, supplemented with goat cheese and black mission figs, were an innovative riff on a classic, the likes of which we haven't seen since the cranberry ones at Azia. I'd also recommend the salads I tried—one a vibrant papaya and green mango, the other with beets, pickled red onion, walnuts, and a fried plantain chip. The only appetizer I'd skip was the crab cake: I liked the crunchy additions of water chestnut, celery, and red onion, but the mushy gray result resembled the inside of a tuna sandwich—not what you want when you cut into a crab cake.

One of my favorite items on the lunch menu was a humble-seeming Korean barbecue pork sandwich. Stuffed with jalapeño, tomato, cucumber, pickled carrot, cilantro, and mayonnaise, it was like a báhn mì, but better, due to the crunchy grilled bread and superior meat filling, made from Fischer Farms pork shoulder. I'd love to see that same creativity applied to more of the traditional items. The green curry with black tiger shrimp was a suitable version, but not nearly as remarkable as its chef-driven cousin, the Massaman curry of black mushrooms, peas, potatoes, currants, and fried leeks topped with grilled pork tenderloin. Ironically, the pad Thai was one of the least appealing dishes, as it lacked the expected sweet-sour-hot-salty punch.

But the restaurant itself seems to be about letting go of expectations. Just as the pad Thai was a letdown, the thoughtful pastry list was a pleasant surprise, particularly the cup of brandy-spiked chocolate and its assorted sweet dunkables—brownie, biscotti, and chocolate chip and coconut cookies. If Otho's owners had leased space on, say, Hennepin or Grand avenues, they might have felt compelled to play it safe. By pioneering upscale dining in Elliot Park, they have the freedom to define what that might be.