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Would you visit a city just to eat at one restaurant? Maybe you should, especially if its culinary offerings reflect the city's cultural essence as well as Otono. The Los Angeles restaurant beautifully nails L.A.'s melting pot vibe, infusing Spanish cuisine with Mexican and Asian flavors and California's focus on fresh, local, sustainable ingredients -- all while embracing a small plate and street-food spirit.
It's hard to believe that Otono, which is widely hailed as L.A.'s hottest Spanish restaurant, is also one of the city's newest, having just opened in late 2018. It's also hard to believe that lesbian chef and owner Teresa Montano wasn't always destined for the kitchen. Instead she imagined her future on a soccer field. The New Mexico native was a soccer prodigy who began playing at 4 and was later recruited to play at Pepperdine University.
"Playing soccer on the bluff in Malibu was an easy sell for me," jokes Montano. Everyone else expected she'd go pro after graduation, but she says things "didn't quite go as planned. After my soccer career fizzled out, I was still living in Malibu. I started working on... this big ranch with all organic vegetables overlooking the Pacific. It was like a very, very romantic introduction to the food industry."
After she did a stint at Starbucks, which she says gave her a "solid customer service background," Montano was further seduced by the food industry after catering in Malibu, which she recalls as "very glamorous because we would cater these big weddings. I was really dazzled by all of it."
Melting Pot:Teresa Montano (above), chef and owner of L.A.'s Otono restaurant, blends Spanish cuisine with Asian and California influences for her delectable tapas plates (below).
Montano attended culinary school, worked at a Tender Greens, and eventually opened her own restaurant, Racion, which served Basque tapas and won raves in Pasadena for six years before succumbing to the recession.
But before launching Otono, her latest endeavor, Montano embarked on a two-month culinary adventure that took her through Spain, Italy, and Denmark. In Copenhagen, she worked at a restaurant she credits with exposing her to innovative vegetable-centric dishes and new methods for minimizing food waste.
Particularly moved by the street scene of Valencia, Spain, Montano infuses Otono with a similar ambience. She even enticed famous Valencian street artist duo PichiAvo to create a one-of-a-kind mural for the restaurant that features their signature combination of classical artwork and modern graffiti. It creates a vibe that fits perfectly in the Highland Park neighborhood, which she calls "a great drinking neighborhood."
That was one reason Montano also decided to incorporate a bar into Otono's design. Visible from the street, it helps draw people into the restaurant. She wanted to create "a busy bar that's always just bringing life to the rest of the restaurant." It's working.
And it offers the entrepreneur more than that. "It's kind of a next evolution for me as a chef owner and operator to learn that side of the industry," she points out. "We also wanted to make some money this time. It's definitely a money maker. It's exciting. It's fun. It's another arm of our creativity as well."
During the bar's "siesta hour," tapas are as inexpensive as $3, and Montano has the freedom to get creative. For this chef, that often means embracing the constraints of simplicity -- like charcoal-grilled cherry tomatoes seasoned with nothing more than Otono's in-house prawn-and-tomato salt.
The mural, which draws customers further into the restaurant, is also a perfect metaphor for what Montano does with Spanish flavors. Being inspired by the classics, but not pinned in, the chef brings something new and modern to traditional Spanish cuisine. There's a melting pot kind of international influence to her interpretations. You'll find Japanese dashi in the paella, miso mixed in with the vegetable stock.
There's also a Mexican influence, but she acknowledges "a lot of Asian influence. Most of what I learned from and I eat is Asian food. We do a Jamon iberico broth. It's like a ramen broth with Jamon iberico [Iberian ham]."
Los Angeles has always had a huge Asian population, and Montano sees the cuisine as a central part of the L.A. experience. "It's something that people see every day, or that we go out to eat ramen, and we have sushi, and so people understand these ingredients." Using them in this inventive way, Montano admits, "kind of turns it on its head while still staying true to our Spanish dish."
As Montano alludes, for all its international flavorings, there's no mistaking that this is a Southern California restaurant. Inspired by the area's focus on fresh, locally (and sustainably) harvested ingredients, Otono's menu changes frequently to take advantage of farmer's market finds and reflect the changing seasonal availability.
The unique mural (above) perfectly complements the street food.
Montano says she had a "very formative experience" working at the organic restaurant Tender Greens, where "I learned so much about what good vegetables really look like and taste like, and how to treat them. I think it's the responsibility of the chef to cook with the seasons, to support local farmers. That always will come through in my food. That's how we eat here. We eat with the seasons and we have quite a bounty down here. I love going to the farmer's market and seeing how that'll translate into our Spanish menu."
Sustainability is also critical to the chef. "It's important for us financially, number one," Montano explains. She tries to find inventive ways to use -- rather than discard -- extra ingredients. "We have a full bar here and creative people behind the bar." For example, she recalls having leftover tomato skins and suggesting, "'Let's dehydrate them and turn them into a powder, and then integrate them into a drink.' There's always these opportunities to not let things go to waste. Because we have the creativity, I think that we don't have to throw anything away. There's so much waste in restaurants. It just goes hand in hand with how do we keep this place going? How do we sustain ourselves? It's still a penny business, the restaurant industry. We're throwing away fennel tops? That's money in the trash."
As Montano suggests, inventive drinks follow her philosophy, and bar director Gavin Koehn reimagines Spanish mainstays. Otono's in-house Tinto de Verano, a drink typically blending Sprite and rose wine, mixes rose, Spanish rum, and Pellegrino lemon.
Small plates make up much of Otono's menu, but you mustn't miss the delicious seafood paella or the delectable (and breathtakingly gorgeous) beet morcilla with almond horchata, strawberry gel, and beet meringue for dessert. Still, start with the tapas, particularly the fried croquetas (filled with jamon serrano and cow's milk or sweet corn and mushroom with goat's milk) and the Pan con Tomate.
Montano describes the Pan con Tomate as "classically Spanish and extremely simple, but so pleasurable... It's just very good bread toasted, and then we grate tomatoes with some garlic, olive oil, and salt. That's the dish. It's four ingredients, you know? Four very good ingredients, and it's really spectacular. I encourage every table to get it." (OtonoRestaurant.com)