Dining Out: The Reign of Spain

Overwhelming crowds? Precious portions? Forget everything you’ve heard about the bustling new South End hot spot Toro. Chef Ken Oringer—the culinary mastermind behind Clio and Uni—has done it again, this time forgoing fashionable avant-garde cuisine in favor of rustic tapas treats.

Read on for the full review by Boston magazine food critic Corby Kummer.

It’s been a long time since I liked a new restaurant as much as I do Toro, and I admit I didn’t expect to. I heard a lot from friends who’d braved the crowds, and most of it was worrisome. Get ready for endless waits, they said—no reservations and everyone wants to go. They added warnings about rude treatment if you weren’t as beautiful and young as the clubby crowd, awful noise, and tiny portions whose prices unexpectedly add up as you keep ordering to get enough food to make a meal.

The only things that corresponded to my own experience on three dinner visits was a longish wait for four people on a Friday, and a few unexpectedly small portions. But these are tapas, after all—the ingenious, often delicious, Spanish thirst-whetters. They’re supposed to be small. And most of them are so rich in flavor that they satisfy and leave you eager to taste something else. The variety of good things to eat is so broad, and the prices, on average, so reasonable, that we never left hungry—and never spent more than $35 a head without wine.

The style of the food was unexpected, too. I’d been reading about Ken Oringer’s frequent trips to Barcelona and Madrid after his years-long immersion in Asia, and had a clear idea of what he would offer at his casual new restaurant in this not-quite-arrived part of the South End. I expected high-flown experimentation and a kind of precious perfection resulting from extremely expensive, extremely fresh ingredients prepared with a willful artistry. This is the basis, after all, of the reputation Oringer has carefully built at Clio and Uni, his sashimi bar, which offers probably the least food for the most money of any restaurant in Boston. And Oringer has been a loyal supporter of, and star speaker at, Madrid Fusión, the annual conference where avant-garde chefs demonstrate the latest high-tech machines and techniques. Instead, Toro is a loving tribute to the traditional food I and like-minded foodies seek out whenever we’re lucky enough to visit Spain. What a relief!

Toro looks terrific, with beige painted brick walls, high ceilings with hefty rough-hewn rafters, and a welcoming fireplace at the far end, which you usually can’t see for the crowds. Same with the blackboard menu and wines in wooden crates mounted on the wall behind the bar, which is generally two or three people deep. But once you find the bartender, you can order food and eat at a long, high central table that separates the bar from the dining room, if you don’t mind being a bit buffeted on both sides. (These count as wait-list seats, along with the regular tables.)

As soon as you can get a server’s attention, order the almendras marcona ($3), tortilla española ($5), and escalivada catalana ($6), which will get you straight into a tapas mood. The almonds (almendras), sautéed in oil as they would be in a Spanish tapas bar, were cooked more lightly and in a milder olive oil than I’d have liked (and than I rely on in the definitive local version at Casablanca). But they vanish fast. The tortilla is the classic high frittata of Spain, with sweet, long-simmered onions and potatoes in oil; here it’s cut into very small squares and served room temperature, and you might want a second order because it’s so good—an occupational hazard with this menu. The escalivada is wood-roasted eggplant warmed in olive oil with onions, peppers, and tomatoes, seasoned with a few splashes of sherry vinegar—the sweet but still sharp vinegar that ought to replace the sugar-laced vinegar sold these days as balsamic. Oringer told me that chef John Critchley, formerly sous-chef at Clio, roasts the eggplant in the embers at the end of an evening, which gives it a great hint of char that doesn’t dominate.

I managed to go through a lot of the menu, which is a feat; the two long sheets have an incredible 46 items. Fried food showed special mastery, as it should at a tapas bar. Croquetas de bacalao ($6), or cod fritters, have a sweet-salty, snowy interior different from the yellow-gray, chewy, salty bacalao I’m used to, because Oringer salts his own local cod and dries it enough to hold together in a filling, but not to withstand a sea voyage. Patatas bravas ($5) are French fries done with a Belgian technique, cooked once in oil then a second time at higher heat to order; the mild olive oil gives it a good, but again not dominating, flavor. The allioli (garlic mayonnaise) and spicy (but not too spicy) tomato sauce with pimentón, garlic, and onions are great dipping sauces.

There are also cut-rate Clio reminders, which might be something Oringer fans have been dying for. One, seared tuna with pickled nameko mushrooms ($7), is three squares of sushi-grade tuna pertly toothpicked with little mushrooms. Another is foie gras with pear chutney ($6), a perfectly seared blini-sized piece of fresh foie gras that might be the single best bargain in Boston. It’s also served on a fantastic new bread Iggy’s devised for Toro—an airy, spongy, sweet baguette with a bare hint of sour that I’d like to buy every day. (So far, neither the restaurant nor Iggy’s is selling it to take home.)

As soon as you have a real seat, the servers will ask if you want a paella, which takes 30 minutes, they say. I’d counsel against it, judging by the oil-laden vegetarian version ($26) I tried. The rice was soft but distinct, the trick of paella; but the flavor was muddy, the only discernible accent, saffron and that note shrill, and the oil in every bite made for a dreary dish.

Order instead another dish that takes time (about 20 minutes): lubina a la sal ($24), salt-crusted Mediterranean sea bass. The fish is beautifully flavored, tender, and unsalty. Though the bottom was a bit too translucent, the top half was cooked perfectly, and if you do the filleting yourself you can get all the good nuggets waiters usually leave behind.

Even if you think you don’t like tongue, order the lengua con lentejas ($10), smoked beef tongue with lentils and salsa verde, a garlic-spiced herb and olive oil vinaigrette. Oringer enriches an already rich meat by simmering it slowly in duck fat, a new idea to me and a pretty fabulous one. If you want straight-up beef, go for the bistec de Faldilla a la plancha ($14), thin-sliced skirt steak served with an oval of Cabrales blue cheese butter. You get a bit more beef with the two mini Kobe burgers with allioli ($12), which are cute, besides. (If you don’t like your beef black and blue, say you want it cooked inside.)

There are disappointments. One night the tortilla squares came straight from the fridge and were rubbery rather than plush. Garbanzos con chorizo ($9) had nice, meaty flavor and the Spanish chickpeas were pleasantly chewy, but the dish was almost too salty to eat. Desserts aren’t much, with a crema catalana ($7) that’s plain old crème brûlée, much thicker and richer than the original, though the thin crust is nicely brittle.

Stick to the churros con chocolate, fluted crullers you dip in a pool of thick, pepper-spiced chocolate. This is truly Spanish, even if it’s a breakfast dish. Come to think of it, it’s a shame Toro is open just for dinner. I could find something to eat there all day long—and with longer hours, I could probably find a seat, too.