Otto’s is a young fogey of a French restaurant which, in restaurant years, should only be at primary school, but already feels rather tweedy, historic and part of the furniture. Perhaps this is because the whole place harks back to a bygone era of hospitality, or Otto’s personal way with customers, or simply the classic, reliable food.
Located on a rather dull stretch of the Gray’s Inn Road, that porous border between Clerkenwell and Bloomsbury, you could easily go past this place without even realising. Its unassuming exterior belies the kitsch and slightly eccentric interior therein. Arriving on a cold winter’s evening, my colleague and I were greeted by the eponymous hero himself. He was keen to take our aperitif order and settle us in. Otto is the Pictionary definition of a maitre d’: he makes sure everyone is being looked after whilst simultaneously attending to those who pre-ordered the pressed duck experience (more on which below). Like any good captain of a ship, he keeps a beady eye on everything, whips his staff into action and gets his sleeves rolled up for the trickier manoeuvres.
there are no gimmicky or flamboyant touches here, which, in this current world of foams, smears and tears, is actually a blessed relief
The food is unashamedly old-school – there are no gimmicky or flamboyant touches here, which, in this current world of foams, smears and tears, is actually a blessed relief. My salmon starter was just a plate of salmon, carved at the table – no particular flair but sometimes that’s exactly what you want. My steak Rossini came with the requisite piece of foie gras and a wonderful, glistening jus. Apart from the steak being just a shade north of the requested cuisson, the dish was executed well. My colleague’s venison was rich and hearty, blowing away those wintry cobwebs. Really, what more do you want? To give full disclosure though, this is a meat-oriented place: if you’re of a vegetal persuasion, you will struggle with the menu.
Otto is the Pictionary definition of a maitre d’
Of course, one of the main attractions here is the canard a la presse, which you have to order a couple of centuries in advance (there is also the homard a la presse and the poulet Bresse). The pressed duck is a 19th century creation, a speciality of La Tour d’Argent, which was brought to London by Auguste Escoffier. Today, Otto’s is possibly one of the only places left that maintains the tradition. It’s quite something to watch, as the dead duck is placed in a contraption that squeezes every last drop of blood and marrow out of the once sentient being to create sauces, and then the duck itself is roasted. In the meantime, a starter of duck liver on brioche is served, then later the duck breast and duck leg. This is certainly an experience, but not something you can do every day (lest you risk a bout of gout): there’s a lot of sitting around waiting and after the third course of duck you do run the risk of duck fatigue. But, if Otto was Basil Fawlty he would say “well, if you don’t like duck you’re rather stuck.”
As you would expect, being merely metres away from Gray’s Inn and Bloomsbury, the clientele seem to be mostly lawyers, writers or bon vivants. On the next table it was obvious a burnt-out barrister was entertaining her clients, while on another table was a solo diner – either a divorce lawyer, or a divorcee, or a combination of the two – nursing a whole bottle of Claret to himself whilst watching films on his laptop. This makes for a rather odd and Pinteresque ambience but nothing about Otto’s is normal really.
It may not be a perfect experience (gastronomically) but that’s not the point. It’s worth going for the hospitality, kitsch value and the food theatre – and knowing that there’s nowhere quite like it in London.
182 Gray's Inn Road
by J A Smith