Will Cowper hasn’t opened a new restaurant in five years, and yet he’s just opened two in six months.
That’s how it feels for the Otto head chef, anyway. After Otto Brisbane’s three-month Covid-related shutdown ended in June last year, Cowper and restaurant manager Alan Hunter undertook the arduous task of rebooting the celebrated Italian restaurant’s 480 Queen premises. Fridges had to be restarted and restocked, furniture unpacked, suppliers re-engaged, booze shelves filled, staff (re)hired and trained.
“Coming back from Covid was starting from scratch again,” Cowper says. “We were closed for so long. There was no food, nothing.”
But no sooner had the reopened Otto served its first bowl of lobster spaghettini when word came the restaurant was to move in the new year – across the river into the distinctive former South Bank digs of Stokehouse Q. The restaurant reopened in the space at the start of February.
“It’s the same thing now, and this one’s a little more challenging,” Cowper says. “It’s like moving home but multiplied by 100. It’s getting used to new surroundings, new equipment, new everything. So this one is definitely the harder of the two.”
But that effort has produced a worthy pay-off. It’s perhaps testament to the strength of Otto’s Saatchi & Saatchi branding that Cowper, Hunter and their staff have achieved a lot with relatively little change to the venue itself. Both inside and outside, the beautiful Arkhefield-designed timber digs are much the same, and some of Stokehouse’s furniture has even been retained. And yet this feels like an entirely new restaurant.
Or an entirely new bar, at the very least. Finding a new home for the formerly al fresco Bar Otto was a major component in the decision to cross the river. The answer at South Bank is Otto Osteria, a reimagining of the old Stokehouse bar as an easy, breezy spot to sip wine and graze on a relaxed produce-driven menu of antipasti, classic pastas and straight-ahead mains.
Again, nothing structural has changed, but the introduction of lighter, brighter outdoor furniture and the pops of Otto’s precise yellows and blues have completely transformed the venue. It’s also a clever piece of bifurcation – keeping the restaurant as a destination while Otto Osteria welcomes a more casual South Bank crowd (still, it’s a sign of how seriously Fink is taking Otto Osteria that it’s inherited 480 Queen’s signature Les Danseuses spinning felt lamps).
As for the restaurant itself, you can see why Otto owner John Fink jumped at the chance to take over the old Stokehouse space. It’s in Otto’s DNA to be by the water and this fabulous open-air riverside dining room feels like a natural sequel to the original harbourside Otto in Sydney.
“The only thing that’s missing is the boats moored out front,” Cowper says. “But there’s plenty of water traffic cruising past … it’s peaceful. I would love to sit here and have a long lunch.”
Nothing major has changed on the menu of locally sourced entrees, mains and housemade pasta dishes, despite the kitchen brigade having to accomodate more tables with a smaller kitchen. You might start with a Rangers Valley beef carpaccio with truffle dressing, or Hervey Bay scallops served with pumpkin and black pudding, followed by mains of lamb rump with roasted tomatoes, eggplant and basil pesto, or market fish accompanied by black mussels, corn and fennel. Pastas can be ordered as an entree or main and (beyond the celebrated spaghettini) include a tagliolini with smoked ham hock, egg yolk, pecorino and pepper, and an octopus mezze maniche (short tubular pasta) with cherry tomatoes, green olives, capers, basil and lemon.
To help down the food, Hunter’s enormous wine list remains one of the best in town. It ranges internationally across regions and decades but specialises in small-producer Italian drops.
“It’s just about getting used to the new space and the kitchen in particular,” Cowper says. “Stokehouse made it work and it’s just about making it work for us. That’s the biggest challenge, to get everything running as smoothly as over [at 480 Queen].
“We 100 per cent loved that space. We spent four and a half years there, building it from scratch and I have emotional ties to it … [but] right next to the water is perhaps where we should’ve been all along. This is the perfect fit.”
Otto Brisbane and Otto Osteria
Sidon Street, South Brisbane
(07) 3835 2888
Wed & Thu 5.30pm–10pm
Fri to Sun 12pm–3pm, 5.30pm–10pm
Wed to Sun 12pm–9pm