October 21, 2013 | BITE: My Journal

The Running of the Toro

Butter-roasted heirloom carrot salad with hay ashes, harissa, buttermilk, chopped mint.
Butter-roasted heirloom carrot salad with hay ashes, harissa, buttermilk, chopped mint.

          My friends quickly get into running-with-the-bulls mode at the Meat Market transplant of Boston’s Toro by ordering the “Boston Bamboo” from a list of $15 “Cócteles.” I fancied the nicely grownup mix of fino, dry Vermouth and tea bitters. And I like sitting high above the West Side Highway watching the traffic.

Toro’s four-thousand square feet industrial space divides into several micro climates.

          I had arrived early, not sure where I would find 85 Tenth Avenue, although my Post-it said “entrance on 15th Street.”  Another few steps and I’d be in New Jersey. Then I spied an opening in the wall, and inside, narrow steel stairs. At the top, beyond the swinging doors, Toro’s industrial warehouse looked like a giant cowboy saloon. I expected a bucking bull. The crowd was sparse.

Chefs cook directly for diners who grab counter seats in the rear.

          “You’re the first to arrive,” the hostess said, and then, looking up, “Would you like to go to your table while you wait?”  Okay, maybe that’s what goes for attitude in Boston, or maybe she recognized a restaurant critic. Behind me, there’s a counter of eaters and a cook or two in one corner, and a stage-set garden with tables in another. The crowd skews young and noisy with a scattering of grey tops. I have time to study the menu: pinchos (bites) and tapas, more than 60 offerings -- cold, hot and á la plancha -- authentic and fantastical.

Normally pinchos are small bites with a toothpick. Here the difference between a pincho and a tapa seems to be price. Pinchos are mostly $5 to $8, except for foie gras and the sea urchin sandwich. Tapas run from $9 to $16 with abalone at $24.

Pressed cheese sandwich features tertilla, a cheese not easily found in our town.

          Our server spends a lot of time running, but mostly in the opposite direction. “Everybody order two of something to start,” I suggest,  “And we’ll grab her when she gets close.” Once we’ve captured the waitress again, and the earnest young woman-in-training who is apparently following her, taking notes, we’ve got our Margaritas and sherry by the glass and it’s feeling a little bit like Barcelona. There are 11 sherries by the bottle, including a fino at $120, but only three by the $12 pour. 

Early disillusion: The waiter delivers two ham-wrapped, cheese-stuffed dates for $7.

          Eventually, triangles of grilled tertilla cheese bocadillo arrive – a bready cheese melt -- and the fabulous pressed sea urchin. We debate ordering an uni encore, but there’s so much more we want to try. And what are these? Two stuffed dates? Two stuffed dates for $7? “Well, the kitchen is downstairs,” says Barton. “Maybe four stuffed dates were too heavy to carry.” I cut each jamón Serrano-wrapped roly poly in two. It’s not like no one else in town stuffs dates, but these, oozing Cabrales blue cheese and a hidden almond, are good.

When I ordered ventresca, I expected canned tuna belly. Chef Oringer says its fresh.

          Determined tasters all, we are pretty much throwing darts at the enticing menu lineup. Lauren wonders who ordered the tuna on toast. That would be me, the tuna hound. It’s ventresca, tuna belly, with tomato marmalade and celery leaves. 

Call it pulpo: Galacian octopus with potatoes and charred onions.

          And what did she order?  Oysters en escabeche with lovage and citrus. Fine grilled octopus with potatoes and charred onion. And mackerel tartare, plump nubbins piled into an empty sardine can “with stuff that we all really like,” the menu notes coyly. Too scary to list? Not at all -- you might be tasting cucumber, green curry paste, coconut milk with lime and lemon juices and olive oil, says James Beard Award-winning chef Ken Oringer.  A prolific entrepreneur in Boston with Jamie Bissonnette, they are joined in Chelsea by local partners.

Nubbins of raw mackerel with cuke, green curry pasta, coconut milk and citrus juices.

          Did anyone notice the $27 tab when we ordered the espardeñas– sea cucumbers? Not my thing, but I try not to be diva. They are definitely imported from Spain, Oringer tells me some days later, not Chinatown sea slugs. He loves them and willingly pays 100 euros for a portion in Spain. “We don’t make a penny on them here,” he promises.

Ribbons of marinated sea cucumber excite my pals but don’t thrill me.

          We’re spending $100 per person tonight, ordering willy nilly. But smoked eggplant to share is only $9 and our crew is savoring a big steaming $14 casserole of tripe, beans and blood sausage, infinitely more satisfying than a skimpier $15 serving of too-cooked sweetbreads with blood orange and fermented black bean. The ham and pig’s head croquettes are wonderful too.


Once they forgot it was tripe, everyone loved this stew of tripe, beans and blood sausage.

          Blowfish tails with Moroccan spices (a gift from the kitchen) are easily divided. For me, the marvelous heirloom carrot salad with buttermilk dill and harissa in a generous $12 toss is a snappy retort to the $10 carrot at American Cut.

          Our frivolous server surprises us by seeming to know all about socarrat – the crustiness that sticks to the pan of a proper paella. She promises the kitchen will deliver it.  Alas, our $38 half portion of Paella Valenciana is a tad stingy with seafood and there’s nothing much stuck to scrape up although the greasy rice is good. I sense we’re running out of steam.

          But the corn is yet to come, Mexico’s irresistible maiz asado, corn on the cob smeared here with aioli, Espelette pepper and aged cheese. Even though the early fall corn seems tired (as if cooked too far ahead), the lush flamboyance cannot be resisted. “Call it dessert,” I suggest, licking the salty smudge from my fingers.

This memorable pressed uni bocadillo is slathered with miso butter and mustard seeds.

          Then the waitress-in-training (already promoted) returns to sell us dessert. “There is no dessert list,” she responds when we ask to see it. “But we have three choices: churros, chocolate torrone and licorice toffee with yogurt mousse and heirloom apples.

          “Don’t we have to taste dessert?” I ask. “I’m working.”

          “Let’s make a new rule,” Barton suggests. “If they don’t care about dessert enough to put it on the menu, then we don’t have to order it.”  It’s not like raising the debt ceiling or sabotaging health care. We instantly agree.

          The 4000 sq.ft. space is jammed now as we get up to leave. Painful decibels bounce off the windows and the soaring ceiling.  We brush against waiters trying to slither by. I see a few familiar faces at the bar up front and the flyaway tufts of  Food Network’s Anne Burrell in a scrum of fans.

Sweetbreads with blood orange, fermented black beans, peanuts and celery root lose their character in the frying.

          On this first impression, partly authentic, partly Disney, Toro screams fun. What we tasted was mostly good or very good. By rights, the kitchen should soon hit its rhythm. Meanwhile, the neighborhood has already found Toro. Chelsea Market, the High Line and Google’s local playpen are close. I might come back for the mackerel, the tripe-blood sausage stew and the fabulous uni bocadillo -- early maybe, before the crowd revs up. Brandon has already been back. Lauren has vowed never to return. You can decide if it’s waiting for you.

85 Tenth Avenue. Entrance on 15th Street between 10th and 11th Avenues. 212 691 2360. Monday through Wednesday 5:30 to 11 pm. Bar till 1 am. Thursday through Saturday 5:30 pm till Midnight. Bar till 2 am.

Photographs may not be used without permission from Gael Greene. Copyright 2013. All rights reserved.

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