Much has been written about the growth of Spanish restaurants and cooking in the United States in recent years. Led by Jose Andres' Jaleo in D.C., there has been an incredible growth of this cuisine (perhaps my favorite). New York City has sprouted quite a few including restaurants like Casa Mono and Bar Jamon, Boqueria and the more upscale, about to open Aldea. Chicago has Mercat a La Plancha, San Francisco is graced by the recently opened Contigo and Los Angeles appears to have gone ga-ga over Andres' Bazaar. These are but a few examples of this phenomenon. Another is Ken Oringer's Toro in Boston, where I had the opportunity to dine earlier this week.
I went with a small group of friends. As we arrived at the restaurant, Chef Oringer was standing outside, comforting his daughter. With three major sporting events in progress, the restaurant was busy, but not crazy. We were led to a center table with a view looking into the busy open kitchen. We asked the kitchen to send out their best and weren't disappointed.
Starting with cocktails. we sampled a few different ones. Being a gin fan, I was particularly intrigued by two similar cocktails, "El Gitano" and "The Gypsy". "El Gitano" consisted of Hendricks gin, green Chartreuse and Meyer lemon, while "The Gypsy" was Plymouth gin, yellow Chartreuse, St. Germain Elderflower liqueur and lime. I had "The Gypsy" and tasted "El Gitano." Both were marvelous.
The Gypsy El Gitano
I tasted some other cocktails including the Nantucket Mule and the Calimocho, a concoction of red wine and coke that was strangely charming.
The kitchen started sending out food at a good clip. Our first dish was Escabecheed Island Creek Oysters with foie gras, citrus foam and grains of paradise. I'm generally an oyster purist, preferring them with just a squeeze of lemon, but this went down just as smoothly. The seared foie was enough to provide additional richness but not so much to obscure the lovely raw oyster. The foam provided the requisite citric acidity, while the grains of paradise added a slightly exotic note. I first heard of the spice at Star Chefs from none other than Chef Oringer.
The oysters were followed by a board filled with a variety of tapas including asparagus tortilla with green garlic allioli, Mahon marinated in oil and juniper, ventresca with tomato-caper relish and escalivada of marinated smoked eggplant, peppers, onions, garlic and tomatoes. All were quite tasty, my favorite being the tortilla, which was given wonderful flavor by the asparagus.
Toro is big on offal. The dishes pictured above are Salad of green beans marinated in cascabel chili with charred beef heart, romesco and marcona almonds and Honeycomb Tripe braised with peppers and applejac. These dishes, though clearly containing strong Spanish influences are more the product of a Spanish-American fusion. In the former dish, cascabel peppers would not likely be used in Spain, as they tend to avoid anything with a Scoville unit attached to it, the occasional padrone pepper being an exception, but that is more like a culinary version of Russian roulette. The dish was not particularly spicy, but it was tasty. The tripe was delicious. Presumably the applejack was a substitution for a cider. Whether the tapas are strictly Spanish, is not really important, however. What is important is that they contain the essence of Spanish tapas and are in fact, delicious. Yes, on both counts.
The meal continued with some exceptionally delicious dishes, including the Gambas al Ajillo, the classic Iberian shrimp and garlic dish, creamy croquetas de bacalao with crispy lemon and kobeyaki lacquered sweetbreads with crispy shallots.
The sweetbreads, in particular, were perfect, crisp exterior with soft, delicious sweetbreads with minimal adornment. The sweetbreads were allowed to really shine and they did. That was my favorite dish of the night.
It is funny how one's anticipation can affect one's response to a dish. When the croquetas were served, I did not hear the full description and missed the part about the crispy lemons. They looked to me like fried calamari and that's what I was expecting when I ate one. The sweetness I discovereed and wasn't expecting was somewhat off-putting at the time. Later in the meal, I found out what they were and tried another one. This time expecting not calamari, but fried preserved lemon, I had a very different response and found it to be quite enjoyable. There is a lesson there somewhere.
By this time we had moved on to a wonderfully bright, but dry Manzanilla Sherry that was recommended by Toro's Bar Manager, Courtney Bissonette. I had never had this jerez before and found it to be simply delightful and eminently food friendly.
The food continued to flow. The next round consisted of asparagus on the plancha with marinated mushrooms, ramp vinaigrette and torched uni, Grilled corn with alioli, lime, espelette pepper and aged Cotija cheese, a quail egg over sauteed greens, and Island Creek razor clams on the plancha with a piquillo vinaigrette.
These dishes were all very good, but the corn, a house signature dish despite its having origens more Mexican than Spanish, really stood out as tasty. The razor clams were very good, though I generally prefer them less adorned than these were.
We were starting to reach our saturation point, but we still had a way to go. A charcuterie platter was brought that included serrano ham, La Quercia ham, house cured guanciale,house cured morcilla (blood sausage) and house cured Spanish style ham. Served with cornichons and mustard, the various porcine products were all good, with the La Quercia from Iowa being particularly impressive. None of them will make me forget jamon Iberico de bellota, but then their price point and value were quite reasonable.
Roasted bone marrow with pickled green almond salpicon and oxtail marmalade was simply lovely.
The savories ended ona particularly high note with a pork belly served with cardoons, chantennay carrots and
smoked maple powder.
For dessert we were served classic Spanish churros with a chocolate dipping sauce. The chocolate had been spiced with pimentón, giving it a deep, smoky flavor. For a nice touch, they included a birthday candle.
We ate very, very well at Toro. Given the quality of what comes out of the kitchen and the bar, prices are quite reasonable. It is therefore no surprise to me that they are as busy as they are.
1704 Washington St