Restaurant Review: Real-Deal Eccentricity, at Oti

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On my first visit to the tiny space, the manager and co-owner, Dania Kim, walked me through a brief menu of three entrée-size plates and five smaller ones. Each of the bigger dishes, she explained, goes perfectly with a particular little-dish sidekick: what Popa calls “broken burrata”—Romanian Telemea cheese, dressed in edible flowers—next to a pepper-and-eggplant zacuscă dip, for example, or pickled-mushroom toast with char-blackened pickled hot peppers.

Under Kim’s direction, we paired the daily special—plump mussels cooked in a tomato-beer broth—with a bowl of mămăligă (Romanian polenta) shot through with Parmesan cheese. The combo didn’t really make any sense, but it also sort of did: two different species of rich and salty, one chewy, one creamy, in a mutually constructive weirdness. A plate of three lamb-and-beef meatballs topped with mustard, whose sharpness was softened with a swirl of miso, nicely complemented a dish of pickled grapes, pike-sharp with apple-cider vinegar and cinnamon, clever and bizarre.

Pickled-mushroom toast might include a subtle cloud of ricotta whipped with bone marrow.

Oti is idiosyncratic, but the quirks don’t feel art-directed or forced. This is real-deal eccentricity, a phenomenon increasingly rare (and much eulogized) in New York, and in the grime-and-glitz Lower East Side in particular, where “authenticity” has become more of an aesthetic theme than an inherent state. Oti is a confident, at times graceful little restaurant, but you still get the feeling that it’s a scrappy operation held together via Popa’s sheer creative tenacity. And yet occasional inconsistency doesn’t take away from the sense of the place as ambitious, and maybe on the cusp of becoming something really, really great. There’s no dessert menu, but the restaurant does provide a concluding bite of gummy bears, precisely arranged, one bear in each color—an unexpected little rainbow, sweet and absurd. (Dishes $9-$21.) ♦

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