A Trip to Toro Bravo   Leave a comment

I've heard of the urban legend of the deliciousness of Toro Bravo, similar to Pok Pok, ever since I first moved to Portland. It is raved about by the local press and web bloggers and foodies in the area, as well as some people I know at work. However, I haven't had a chance to visit because 1. They don't take reservations unless you are a group of 7 or more, and I don't have the patience to wait 2. It is tapas, which is generally limited veggie-friendly and small-dish focused, which means you have to really be willing to share or pay as much as a medium-end restaurant but for tiny plates to get full.

Fortunately, I finally had the opportunity to dine there with a group, and got to taste a lot of the dishes. My summary would be that the food was great- full of flavor, the atmosphere was charged and fun. But, it was also noisy- the room not having good sound proofing is one thing, but did the music have to be so loud on top of the echoes of people and the open kitchen and their pans prepping food right there? We also had a disastrous experience with the check and the waitress insisting she could not divide up the check, and then running one charge at a time and bringing an updated check, and then running another charge an an updated check… and then losing the cash because one of the check clipboards obscured a bunch of $20s. It was ridiculous, especially for a party of 14 people, on a Sunday evening so it wasn't crazy busy (though still hopping, even on a Sunday!).

But let's focus on the food. They charge $1 for bread with butter and olive oil. I thought this was stupid. Tapas come to the table family style and as they are ready, which means that at any given time, you might only have one dish devoured by the 5 people in just 4 minutes, and then have to wait another 10 minutes and suddenly have 3 dishes put down. Since people order different tapas, someone who doesn't eat dairy products or red meat other diet restricted may have to wait until the next round of dishes to appear. Bread tides over the uneven timing of food for a smoother dining experience, and I don't think the restaurant should have charged the customer for it.

I didn't try the bread plate in protest of this. My first bite of food ended up being the Tortilla Espanola with nettles. I always get a tortilla as a tapa because it is one of the ways I judge a tapas restaurant. Tortillas should be firm but not too solid, and cool to room temperature but not chilled. Because this is a cold tapa, it usually comes out immediatly too, which I appreciate (especially with the lack of bread). In fact, my tortilla was passed out at the same time as the bread plate another diner ordered at my table. They were really generous with their sauces on the tortilla, and it was a chucky pie size with a creamy mayo sauce and a spicier red sauce (but not very spicy). It was a tasty start, and I wouldn't mind ordering it again to start a tapas experience again here, though definitely be prepared to share this portion! In the photo, the other side looks exactly the same but with the red sauce instead of the white, that's how big this thing was. Another diner thought the nettles would be bitter or sharp, but they added just a subtle counterpoint to the egg and potato. The fact that they can make this simple dish so outstanding is a real testament.

I did get to try two pinchos (the tortilla is actually a tapas dish, though the bread and butter/olive oil is a pincho). One was the Manchego and Paprika Fritters with spicy salsa roja. These fritters are very small- think the size of the dime. I tasted more of the friedness than the manchego and paprika, and they were timid with the salsa, sadly. Disappointing. Thankfully, at the same time these fritters arrived, so did the Griddled Bacon Wrapped Dates with warm honey. At $6 and 3 dates in the dish, you're talking about $2 a piece for a date with its bacon wrapper and drizzle of sweet honey. But, this delicious complexity of flavor is worth ordering every time.

In terms of Tapas, I tried quite a bit of different dishes, thanks to the sharing nature of my dining friends.

The passable and mediocre tapas plates: The Crab & Chicken Croquettes with samfaina were piping hot when they arrived at the table, and had good chunks of crab and chicken inside that burst as you bit in. The samfaina, the cut up vegetable sauce that came with them, could have used more juicy vegetables to compliment the croquettes as the veggies seemed a bit dry and were more like a diced vegetable side than a sauce. The Harissa Stewed Butternut Squash with crumbled sheep's cheese wasn't bad- lots of flavors on the tongue, though the texture was overall mush but tasted good- the cheese is barely there. I think an extra touch of another type of texture would have really elevated this dish. The Sauteed Spinach with pine nuts & golden raisins was unremarkable but good to add some veggies and non-battered plate to the mix. I was surprised the amount of sauteed spinach was so small- probably only a fistful, and you probably know how spinach shrinks when sauteed. When I saute spinach just for myself, I probably make twice as much just for myself (usually two handfuls).

The Oxtail Croquettes with spice roasted chili mayonnaise– you end up with 3 croquettes for $14. The flavor is good, very savory and rich, but there is another beef dish which you would get better bang for your taste, and value for your stomach portion-wise, for the same price: the House Smoked Coppa Steak with olive oil poached potatoes, chopped olives & salbitxada. I only had a little bite of this steak that was the entire length of a palm, and you didn't even need the rest of the sides because the steak itself was so full of flavor. It's like a whole entree, for the same $14 price that you would have gotten the below oxtail croquettes.

The really amazing tapas plates: The House Smoked Coppa Steak I mentioned previously that has steak that is so good just plain and on its own,, and the Tortilla (as well as those bacon wrapped dates). Also, the Spicy Octopus & Prawn Stew was crazy good. It's actually so much flavor packed into a single spoonful that I don't know how you can finish a bowl by yourself and not have your tastebuds be numb from overstimulation. At first acquaintance on your tongue, you taste the vegetables, and then the seafood blossoms flavorfully until you rae kicked by the spicy heat at the end. And that's the experience with every single spoonful. Wow.

Although my review sounds mixed above, I really do think they have a lot of success with their flavor profiles, though there was also a bit more grease then I liked. I definitely would not recommend having so many fritters and croquettes no matter how good they sound in the description as it is a bit overwhelming. The dishes I highlighted are truly amazing, and I admit I have been spoiled by tapas in Chicago at Cafe Iberico and Cafe BaBaReeba, but Toro Bravo definitely is a cut above that. One thing I should also note is that I didn't notice anyone ordering paella at all here, nor sangria pitchers, which would have been the course in Chicago. I think that at the heart
of it, they are very like what you would expect if you had tapas in Spain, and so expecting 100% perfection on what is essentially drinking food is holding it to a high standard.  I guess I'll have to drink more next time 🙂

Next door to Toro Bravo is this adorable little bar with little bites called The Secret Society. They have lots of wonderful drinks and a few teeny bites to tide you over- we went here for the after the bill paying fiasco for a little breather, and it was lovely. I didn't try any bites except for one cheese straw to go along with my brandy champagne cocktail, but the cheese straw was a tasty morsel to go with the even tastier drink that packed a surprise punch. If you do find yourself coming to Toro Bravo, make sure you stop here afterwards to unwind from the more hectic atmosphere of Toro Bravo.


Posted April 6, 2009 by pechluck in Uncategorized

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