2018 was a great year for those of us who live in Highland Park and also like to eat. It marked the mouthwatering opening of instant neighborhood staples such as Triple Beam Pizza and Mason’s Dumpling Shop. Figueroa welcomed the second iteration of the wildly popular Tex Mex eatery Homestate, and even York Blvd got in on the action with Pine and Crane’s casual yet flavorful sister restaurant, Joy on York. But if there was one opening in 2018 that had every East Side foodie abuzz with excitement, it was Otoño.
This modern take on a Spanish restaurant landed gracefully in the old Frank’s Camera building this past summer, helmed by chef/owner and Highland Park local Teresa Montaño, who burst onto the food scene as the head chef of Pasadena’s long-running Basque tapas destination, Ración. For years, Montaño has been all about pushing boundaries and breaking down borders, and Otoño allows her to masterfully merge tradition and creativity, resulting in a menu that takes on Spanish cuisine with an energy that is both intrepidly progressive and comfortingly authentic.
“Otoño is the result of my travels, experience and culinary personality that has developed over the years. I cook with the seasons and with the Los Angeles palate in mind,” says Montaño, who can often be found making the rounds of the 70-seat space, welcoming guests with a smile on her face. The restaurant and bar space is dimly lit and inviting, with a colorful ambiance that recalls classic Spanish architecture and the classic Spanish passion for long meals, good food, and romantic vibes.
Small plates of colorful tapas and communal pans of fragrant paella fill each table, and the wine flows easily alongside decadent Spanish style gin tonic cocktails. When I visit with a few friends on a brisk Thursday evening, the restaurant is humming with warmth and conversation, both lively and intimate at the same time. From the vantage point of our corner table, we can see groups of four and five enjoying leisurely meals over many rounds of drinks, and couples talking closely over candlelight and dessert. The bar, which opens into the restaurant, is also hopping, with people enjoying cocktails or simply watching the action of the kitchen while they dine solo on a few plates of tapas.
The menu gently fuses cultures and cuisines that don’t often find themselves mixing, such as Mexican, Italian, and Japanese, drawing out unlikely flavors and textures through experimental riffs on classic Spanish hits. There’s all the Jamon Iberico, Pan con Tomate and Croqueta de Jamon your tapas-loving tastebuds can handle, but there’s also Japanese dashi adding an umami earthiness to the Paella Negra, alongside wild eastern scallops, chorizo, and lemony cream, and anchovy goat butter serving Italian grandma realness in the Boquerones y Mantequilla, perfectly paired with fresh tuna and herb roasted radishes.
In preparation for Otoño, Montaño spent two months traversing Italy, Spain, and Denmark. She honed in on the seafood-heavy staples of the Iberian peninsula in Spain, and her time and expertise shows: across the board, Otoño’s seafood offerings are superb, and the buttery prawns in their Gambas A La Planchas are not to be missed. Yet she also found herself appreciating the subtlety and simplicity found in the cuisines of all three countries, the way fresh and flavor-packed ingredients would take center stage. Otoño’s menu echoes that sentiment, featuring tapas and conserves that have only two or three quality ingredients, each item carefully orchestrated to pack a walloping punch of unique flavor.
Even the sizzling and show-stopping paella, available in Mariscos, Negra, or Setas (a creamy mushroom-based vegetarian option) is noticeably pared down compared to paellas you may have had in the past, but the simplicity allows each ingredient to shine, and highlights the subtle way the flavors tangle together. It’s honoring both old world tradition and modern innovation, while also having fun with flavor and texture. Most items on the menu feels like a similar celebration of old and new, paired with a fearless air of experimentation.
Montaño extends this idea of powerful simplicity to every aspect of Otoño – she uses local produce and presents her menu through the lens of being a Californian and Angeleno. The menu rotates hyper-seasonally, and many of the vegetables used in their vegetarian paella are sourced directly from the Old Highland Park Farmer’s Market held weekly right down the street from them. The menu also reveals Montano’s love for the diversity of her neighborhood. “Highland Park, in particular, inspires me to keep things simple and stay close to my Hispanic heritage,” she says. This influence is woven tangibly throughout her menu, including one of my favorite items of the night, Churros de Patatas Bravas, which pairs the addictive taste of patatas bravas with the crunchy texture of churros, accompanied by creamy salsa brava and garlic aioli.
Another way Montaño is serving her neighborhood is by understanding it, which is more than can be said for many of the restaurants popping up in the rapidly gentrifying Highland Park area. Montaño has high hopes of Otoño growing into a neighborhood mainstay, a late night dinner or date night option that caters to all and provides a warm and welcoming atmosphere. Their happy hour, called “Siesta Hour” runs Tuesday through Sunday from 4-6PM and features tapas bites for as little as $3, as well as heavily discounted wine and cocktails.
With talk of borders continually dominating the news cycle and wreaking havoc on our psyches, it’s both refreshing and uplifting to remember that things are always better when we break down boundaries and allow our compassion and creativity to run wild. Otoño’s playfulness and thoughtfulness (not to mention their impressive Spanish wine list) provides a lovely backdrop for a night out, with authentic yet unexpected flavors aplenty.
We chatted with Montaño about LA’s influence on her creativity, what keeps her coming back to Spanish cuisine, and what she hopes Otoño will bring to the neighborhood. Otoño is open at 5715 N Figueroa St, serving from 4PM to midnight Sunday and Tuesday to Thursday, and 4PM to 2AM Friday and Saturday. Make a reservation here.
Happening In Highland Park: How has living in Los Angeles influenced your creativity as a chef?
Teresa Montaño: In my opinion, Los Angeles has the most exciting and vast ethnic cuisine in the country. We can have any type of cuisine at any time in many different formats, from high end to super authentic mom and pop shops. We are very lucky to have that kind of abundance, with the sea in our back yard and growing seasons that last and last with the most perfect produce. This makes our food and our restaurants even that better, and access to great product keeps chefs discovering and inventing.
HIHLP: What interests you the most about Spanish cuisine?
TM: I fell in love with Spanish food and I’ve never understood why. Love is blind! I love the simplicity and the Spanish culture around food. As a creative person, I look to the modernists of Spanish cuisine who have been at the forefront of innovation in the food industry for the last decade.
HIHLP: What do you love about Highland Park? What are you hoping to bring to the neighborhood?
TM: I love the Hispanic old LA element of Highland Park. It reminds me of the neighborhood I grew up in and feels like home. I love the walkability and the proximity to nature, downtown, and the metro. The new places popping up in Highland Park seem to have relevance – I hope it becomes a place that embraces the old and the new, while preserving that rich Hispanic culture. I’m putting down roots here! I want Otoño to be a restaurant for the neighborhood and a restaurant that brings attention and excitement to the neighborhood. I want to support the businesses around me and the farmer’s market. I want to support local artists and provide jobs to my neighbors. We employ many people from the community, including our Wine Director, Katie Putterlik, who grew up in NELA.