(Toro Dining Room)
Toro is a Spanish small plates/tapas venture located in the South End of Boston. Chef/Owner Ken Oringer is one of New England’s most decorated chefs. He operates five restaurants (Clio, Uni, Toro, Coppa, and La Verdad) in Boston and one (Earth) in Kennebunkport, ME. Winner of the James Bear Award for Best Chef Northeast in 2001, his youthful appearance belies his relatively longstanding tenure in the regional dining scene. I had never been to any of his restaurants, but Toro piqued my interest. Originally, my mother and I had planned on going to Toro for lunch and Clio for dinner, but as it turns out, Saturday is the lone day that Toro does not offer a lunch service and so we settled on Toro for dinner and L’Espalier for lunch.
Although I’ve had some dreadful experiences at small plate restaurants in the past, Toro was appealing in that it shares structural similarities with Avec and Publican, two restaurants that specialize in small plates and from which I’ve had exceptional meals. There are a number of similarities between Oringer and Paul Kahan; both are luminaries who opened their small plate ventures after experiencing great success with fine dining restaurants. They are also well-loved within their home cities, and Avec, Publican, and Toro are each cramped, crowded, and extraordinarily popular.
One of the challenges posed when evaluating Toro (or any venture headed by a celebrity chef) is that its success is overdetermined and the result of contingent factors relating not only to the virtues of the cuisine but also to the public’s support of the chef. In this regard, it is reasonable to contend that much of Toro’s success results from the success of Clio and Uni. Accordingly, one of the challenges of dining at Toro involves the attempt to parse how successful the restaurant is distinct from any external baggage carried by the Oringer name. Thankfully, the crew Oringer assembled has received substantial acclaim in its own right; Executive Chef Jamie Bissonnette was awarded the inaugural Food and Wine People’s Choice Best New Chef award for 2011. That the public voiced such support for Bissonnette suggested that the restaurant’s virtues extended beyond the reputation of Oringer, and so I entered the meal with enthusiasm.
Another similarity Toro shares with Avec is that it doesn’t take reservations; it starts serving at 5:00, and when we arrived at 5:20 they were so crowded that we settled for a two top in the communal tables that line the middle of the restaurant. Within 5 minutes, the entire restaurant was filled. Paradoxically, the no reservation format appears democratic in that everyone has an equal chance of getting a table, although it is also undemocratic since those who don’t get there right away suffer through lengthy waits and, perhaps, harbor feelings of envy toward the privileged diners who arrived in time for the first seating. Also, while the space is certainly larger than Avec, it is every bit as cramped. The downside of such a cramped layout is that the space is not demarcated; there is little separation between tables and many patrons at the bar are relegated to standing. Overall, the décor is not in line with my personality, although I enjoyed the large clay bull hanging on the wall:
The menu was enormous and contained over fifty options. Oringer was wise to structure his small plate venture through the tapas format—it feels very organic since tapas menus are historically quite large. The menu covered an even larger scope than in Spain and it is clear that Toro both replicates traditional Spanish tapas offerings and offers innovative, regionally specific ones as well. The menu incorporated elements of other cuisines, such as kimchi and local lobster. In a clever marketing touch, the menu also serves as placemat, which allows for customers to add dishes in media res. We had just enjoyed an 11-course tasting at L’Espalier, and so unfortunately we didn’t have the appetite to eat our way through the menu—there were at least a half-dozen dishes I would have liked to try that we had to forego. In the end, we decided on the gambas al Ajillo (shrimp with garlic and olive oil), Asado de Huesos (bone marrow), Tortilla Espanola, and Lubina a la Sal (sea bass cooked in salt.)
In the small plate tradition, the kitchen serves the food as its finished by the kitchen. I suppose the benefit of this is that the food comes out quickly, but the unfortunate consequence is that personal interaction with the server is compromised; because of this, Toro would be a poor restaurant for a solo diner. It also makes it so that the restaurant feels like an assembly line—there is no glossy sheen to the service the way one finds at fine dining restaurants, and the servers really occupy no role other than serving as delivery mechanisms.
Our shrimp dish arrived about two minutes after placing our order, establishing a rushed pace that continued throughout our meal. Ordinarily this would bother me, but it is clear from the outset that Toro operates at an expedited clip. With most restaurants, there is an implied attempt by the restaurant to try and keep to a beginning, middle, and end structure but this is not the case at Toro. One of the most striking aspects of the restaurant is how transparent it is; the restaurant doesn’t make any promises and so there are none to break.
We had been eager to try the shrimp as my mother makes outstanding gambas al ajillo. These had a great garlic/olive oil/chile broth and were cooked to a pleasantly firm texture. While enjoying the shrimp, a runner dropped off a small loaf of crusty feather bread; one could see the loaves of bread stacked in the back, adding to the assembly line ambience.
Our tortilla Espanola was served in three cubes, with a side of garlic alioli. It was adequate but plain; given the inspired creations elsewhere on the menu, they would have benefitted from adding more of an original touch.
The server who delivered our bone marrow mentioned that it was the largest one they had that night, and it was without question the largest I’ve ever seen. Serving the marrow on a large wood slab was hyperbolic and enhanced the prehistoric connotation of the large bone; this course exuded a hipster irony that was commensurate with the restaurant’s offal-heavy youthful demographic. We both enjoyed the marrow, as well as the oxtail butter with which it was served; however, its extreme richness made it better suited to an accompaniment than a course unto itself.
Our bass was also served on a wooden blank and filleted tableside. It was served with garlic and herbs, and the salt helped bring out the flavor of the bass. I had never had bass cooked in salt before and I was surprised by the especially soft texture. The flavor was excellent although there were an irritating number of bones; it was not filleted with the care of the whole fish I enjoyed at Ria and this is one of the drawbacks to ordering a dish that requires tableside preparation at an uber-casual restaurant like Toro.
With a stifling space and a hurried pace, one of the questions raised by Toro is why exactly someone would pay to eat in such a crowded environment, particularly when considering the long waits endured by the majority of customers. I suppose that the difficulty in securing a table engenders a feeling of exclusivity, and many people might be drawn to the hustle and bustle. More than anything, however, restaurants like Avec and Toro paint themselves into a corner in that they absolutely must deliver with explosive cuisine, and this is exactly where they manage to excel. People can excuse the cramped setting with the justification that, from a taste standpoint, there’s exceptional value.
It is worth questioning whether the restaurant would be so successful if it didn’t have Oringer as its owner, as Toro is undeniably the undertaking of a very confident chef who is well-loved by the Boston public. With Toro, he offers ‘something for everyone,’ the way Rick Bayless has Xoco/Frontera/Topolobampo or Graham Elliot has Grahamwich/Graham Elliot Bistro/Graham Elliot. Although part of me feels as though he is stretching himself thin with so many ventures, the concentration of so many Oringer restaurants within one city reflects the strong positive valence that Boston has for him. Even if the setting and pacing were not in line with my own sensibility, the flavors made a major impact and Toro is a talented member of the small plate restaurant genre.