When I heard about a cocktail bar opening in the Milk District, I naturally thought the place would specialize in White Russians and Milk Punches and Brown Cows — you know, cloying and creamy quaffs swished before beddy-bye. But Otto's High Dive is hardly a sleepy watering hole for night-cappers. It's a "neighborhood rum bar" alive with the din of tipplers who gather amid an understatedly lush, design-forward space to down daiquiris, mojitos and Cuba libres.
Cuba, in fact, was the ultimate inspiration for Otto's. Justin Levaughn, a bartender whose impressive résumé includes stints at Suffering Bastard, Courtesy, Sunroom and Ravenous Pig, wanted to open a rum bar somewhere in the city. When he came across this East Robinson Street property — owned by local developers and Hourglass District founders Giovanni Fernandez and Elise Sabatino — he learned that Fernandez's grandfather owned a rum bar in Manzanillo, Cuba, in the 1940s and '50s called La Barra Polar. Levaughn joined forces with the couple, as well as industry vet Sean Pagan (Vines, Eddie V's, Kokino) and Christopher Munro, and a Cuban rum bar was born.
And what a birth it's been. Since opening in December, Otto's has consistently been one of the hottest hangs around so, yeah, reservations are hard to come by. In fact, I felt fortunate to snag a seat at the bar on both my visits, the latter thanks to a kind accommodation from Levaughn himself.
The owner-bartender — perdóname, owner-cantinero — shook and stirred a bevy of rum-based cocktails for the wide-eyed wonks with front-row seats. And the seasoned cantineros ands cantineras here are skillful, consummate and confident. I don't think I've had a so-so swig here, be it the shaken "Chan Chan" ($14) with aged rhum, sherry, ginger and rice pudding, or the stirred "Ton of Bricks" ($14), a rummy riff on an old fashioned with bourbon, sherry, banana, bay leaf and tonka bean. There are 20 cocktails from which to choose, but don't overlook the refreshing mezcal-based "Chancleta" ($14) or the "Bustelo Biafra" ($14) for a post-meal kick.
Speaking of, I also got a kick out of Otto's menu of Cubano-ish fare. It's overseen by former Ravenous Pig executive sous chef "Handsome" Jake Ettison, whose tight, focused menu plays up flavors that are simple and fuss-free. Braised short-rib ropa vieja served with rice and beans ($22) and mojo chicken topped with a chunky chimichurri ($22) honestly reminded me of the modest, uncomplicated meals I had in Cuba. Not that Handsome Jake's dishes aren't handsome — his hearts of palm salad ($15) with grape tomatoes and cucumbers slicked in a lemon-dill vinaigrette is as fetching as it is bracing; the crudo of citrus-cured kingfish ($20) trimmed with dollops of mojo aioli, mango salsa, cilantro and dusted with a chicharron crumble made for some beautiful bites at the bar. Oysters (not from Cuba) were also enjoyed — pristine Raspberry Points from PEI and bright Beausoleils from New Brunswick ($24 for a dozen).
What drew the biggest reaction, however, was the zingy sauce of the shrimp cocktail. Running the plump Argentinian reds (they're poached in a court-bouillon) through the thick Bloody Mary and Tajin relish was digital dining at its best. This isn't cutting-edge food by any means, but classic eats done right. The pastel de carne ($4), or meat pie, isn't made in house but brought in from iconic L.A. bakery Porto's. I could've eaten 10 of these things. "One of our owners' uncle owns Porto's so we use their products exclusively," says Levaughn. "Gotta keep it in the family!" Cheese, apple and guava pastries from Porto's are also offered.
Florida orange tres leches cake ($15) is a choice ending and the ending of choice for me. It's large enough to feed two people, and pairs well with Holmes Cay Fiji Rum. On one visit, we discreetly inquired about the availability of Havana Club Cuban rum, and we may or may not have received a complimentary pour from a secret stash.
"Salud," I said to my pal, who proceeded to drop the shot glass and liquid onto the counter. "Cabrón," he muttered, while trying to sweep the spirit back into the glass.
Sure, it was a somewhat mortifying scene, but clarity soon prevailed. At this Milk District bar, there's really no use crying over spilled rum.