Anyone who’s eaten with me knows I don’t care much about the scene. It’s not that I’m a hater. I just prefer great food to a great room or cool crowd. Afterall, you can’t eat decor (as they say). So I was a little wary when I walked into Toro opening week to find the 100-seat tapas spot, packed with scenesters, clamoring for a peek of the new eatery and a taste of the food (or at least I was).
Housed in the former Nabisco factory, Toro boasts sky high ceilings and floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the Hudson River. The industrial chic space is outfitted with hanging aged jamon, a bull’s head, plenty of high top communal tables to socialize while you’re nibbling on tapas, and an ivy-covered wall at the rear of the restaurant near the plancha bar. The best seats in the house are at the plancha bar, which is also where you’ll find James Beard award-winning chef Ken Oringer these days (let’s hope he sticks around post reviews), manning the flat top grill (aka la plancha). Whether you snag a seat at the grill or a table, you’ll want to focus your energies on the “Tapas A La Plancha” section of the menu, which is where the best dishes on the menu are.
Some are traditional Spanish tapas, like garlicky shrimp (Gambas al Ajillo), and not-so-traditional dishes, like Heirloom Carrots with Buttermilk, Dill & Harissa. You’ll want to sample the Grilled Octopus, meaty and moist, served with Potatoes, Charred Onions and plenty of Paprika, marvelously fresh Razor Clams topped with a tangy dicing of Piquillo Peppers, Garlic and Lemon, as well as Mushrooms with parsley and an egg yolk.
Eggs are a running theme on the menu and you’ll find several ways to enjoy them. Take the Baby Squid, for example. It’s grilled on the plancha in a cast iron skillet, along with torn cubes of olive oil-kissed bread and a runny egg to bind this gloriously comforting mess all together. And there’s Shirred Eggs (baked with cream), velvety as can be, mingled with Shrimp and shavings of white truffles, lending an elegant and nutty flavor to the dish – breakfast for dinner never had it so good!
If you prefer more classic tapas, the kitchen turns out a fine rendition of Blue Cheese & Almond Stuffed Dates wrapped in Jamon and a stellar Pan Con Tomate, a great litmus test of any Spanish tapas joint. Or better yet, order a glass of Sangria and the Cuttlefish. Close your eyes and you’ll feel like you’ve been transported to the famous, La Boqueria market in Barcelona. At Toro, the sangria is served on tap and it’s as good as any I’ve had in Spain, the perfect complement to the cuttlefish, blackened by its own, intensely briny ink. There’s a roster of five paellas to choose from, too, my favorite of which is the Paella Valenciana, brimming with mussels, clams, chorizo, shrimp, chicken, and oodles of crunchy, saffron-stained rice (socarrat) to scrape off the bottom of the paella pan. Though I’d advise a half order of paella as there are too many other great dishes to try on the 59-item menu.
I’m not sure how Spanish Smoked Duck Legs in a sesame seed-spackled quince glaze are (they’re not), but they’re certainly tasty, as are Rooibos-Marinated Oysters topped with Yuzu Foam and Lovage. Really, the only dish I didn’t care for at Toro was a dish listed under Pinchos with caviar, sea urchin, a raw quail egg & nibble of jamon. I know pinchos are meant to be small bites, but this was a $17 spoonful for one, not two (so don’t bother to trying to share it) with one too many luxe ingredients that seem to cancel each other out. I actually got much more satisfaction out of a simple bowl of Smoked Eggplant, brought to life with a healthy splash of sherry vinegar, onions, peppers, and tomatoes.
It seems like dessert would be an afterthought at this buzzing, new eatery, and you would just wander into another cocktail, but it’s just the opposite. There’s a killer Goat’s Milk Yogurt Mousse, lavished with an unusual and oddly dreamy tasting licorice caramel and julienned heirloom apples. There’s also proper rendition of Churros with Chocolate Dipping Sauce, and a tasty Chocolate Cremeux, which is a fancy, French way of saying dense chocolate pudding with a scoop of olive oil ice cream.
New Yorkers don’t typically take kindly to out of towners, especially those who think they can open a duplicate restaurant concept (aka a chain) and we’ll eat it up. I mean, just because you have a winning restaurant in Boston (and a James Beard Award) doesn’t mean a thing in Manhattan. But I think the haters will have a very hard time hating on this exciting newcomer.