Note: this post is a complete rewrite of the 2007 review – an extra 1500 words.
I’m going to stray off the topic of Toro Bravo for a bit, but to understand Spanish food, it helps to have a little understanding of the culture behind the food.
Spain tugs at something deep in my soul. Maybe it is because taste, music, and memory are so closely intertwined, but every time I hear flamenco, I flash back to a time over twenty years ago.
I was living in a small town in the Northern California wine country, where I frequented a restaurant in an old building just across from the downtown square. I’d drop by after work and sit at the long wood bar with a glass of wine, chatting with friends, and listening to the classical guitar player who entertained the diners. But it was after the restaurant closed that the real magic began.
Many nights local flamenco artists would drop by, the doors would be locked, and the guitarist, whose real passion was flamenco, would come sit with us. Tales of rousing adventures in Grenada and Cordoba were told. After a few bottles of wine, the guitarist would strum a beat, someone would start singing, long skirts would flow back and forth, and before long, feet would be stomping across the restaurant, sending dust high into the air from cracks in the old wooden floor.
They taught me to appreciate flamenco by learning the complex rhythms and doing simple “palmas sordas y secas”, the practice of clapping along with the music to generate excitement or to encourage the performers. It wasn’t long before I learned some simple cantes libres, and after a fair amount of wine, would sing along. While I left those friends behind when I moved to Portland, I’ll never forget those hot summer nights, twilight streaming through the high windows, dust hanging in the air, the laughter, the flowing bright skirts, the lessons taught, and most of all, the passion for the music felt by my friends.
These experiences gave me an education in Spain before I ever visited, because I learned the passion that is Spain. The depth of soul in the voices, and complexities of the rhythms, carry over into their lives. Visiting years later, I better understood the lifestyle and the food, because they go hand in hand. Spanish nights are long and passionate, a night out is more like a food tour and a marathon party, than a simple visit to a restaurant. “Tapas” or small plates are the mainstay of an evening on the town, and every bar is known for certain dishes. You might have a drink at one along with bacalao fritura (salt cod fritters), move to another for boquerones (fresh anchovies), another for cordero (lamb), and choose another for jamón. It is all about the best dishes, a large circle of friends and favorite drinks, all intertwined: an explosion of life. It’s hard to come back home after experiencing the Spanish passion for living. ¡Así se canta!
For years the Spanish food scene in Portland was disappointing, because none of the tapas restaurants have been particularly good. Everyone seems to think they can churn out small plates of food and call them tapas. It wasn’t surprising, that by 2006, Spanish cuisine in Portland was slowly fading away. Then Toro Bravo, or the Brave Bull, burst on the scene, and judging by the crowds, Portland has never looked back.
It is rare for a restaurant to run a smooth kitchen, turn out such a terrific variety of good food on a consistent basis, and provide excellent service. Toro Bravo manages to do all three. Owner and Chef John Gorham previously worked at Viande Meats and then Simpatica Dining Hall, where he garnered much praise for his special Spanish dinners. A few years later, John traveled around Spain, and brought back recipes, ideas, and the vision for what his restaurant would become. Like many of us who have visited Spain, he appears to be inspired by the depth and beauty of this fantastic cuisine.
The restaurant is in a turn-of-the-century building on North Russell Street, next to the Wonder Ballroom. The space is simple, yet refined – a recurring theme in both the food and décor at Toro. Tall ceilings and a wall of large windows create airiness in the interior. Deep orange-red walls and ceiling, coupled with wood planked tables and small intimate touches such as a fully stocked bookshelf at the reception area, lighting that is neither too dark and dramatic, nor too stark and harsh, and subtle art elements throughout, make for a comfortable and warm experience.
Even though the space is open, there are a variety of choices in seating arrangements that are comfortable for all kinds of moods and situations. Whether dining in a large party, or even solo, you will be comfortable. Options include the bar, where one might just drop in for a cocktail and a couple of tapas, chefs counter seating up front, the right side of which is perfect for watching the well orchestrated action in the open kitchen, several smaller tables for a date or group dining, and a couple of large communal tables. A little alcove on the side provides a coveted space to wait for a table to become available, and unless you time your arrival just right, you will be waiting. Get there early or late, as mid-evening tables are difficult to score. I’ve noticed that dishes are much slower out of the kitchen if you go early, as they are slammed with fifty tables all ordering small plates at once! One plus, you can wander upstairs to The Secret Society bar, which will let you know when your table in the restaurant is ready.
The cuisine at Toro Bravo covers many regions in Spain, from the mountains and seas of the northern Basque area, to the distinct cuisine of Catalonia, which is the home of Barcelona, to the Moorish-influenced dishes of the South, though it is not a strict copy of any of them. Rather, John and company have decided some interpretations are more appropriate, and have chosen dishes that they know people will like, that can be prepared in their kitchen. Call it more Spanish inspired, rather than traditional Spanish. Most importantly, they seem to have chosen dishes that they love, which makes a huge difference in creating terrific food. The formula works, just don’t go expecting that perfect reproduction of a tapas bar you found on the beaten path during your holiday on the Costa Brava, or a copy of that well-known historic restaurant you once came across in Barcelona. This is not a Disney tourist version of the Spanish experience. Once you realize this, you can relax and just enjoy Toro for the good food and wine, relaxed and convivial atmosphere, and good company that it brings; for this is the essence of Spanish food.
The menu, which rotates items on and off on a regular basis, requires some thought to understand. It’s divided into Pinchos, Tapas, Paellas, and Desserts. The offerings are enticing, sometimes exotic, and varied enough that you may want to try them all, though the sheer number of choices makes it impossible. With a few caveats, plunge in and try things you might normally be drawn to. Pay attention to the type of dishes you order. It would be very easy to go for an overabundance of similar dishes, and leave the restaurant wondering what the fuss is about. Instead, be adventurous and grab items from every corner of the menu, and like a trip to Spain itself, you will be transported into another world.
As in Spain, food tends to fly out of the kitchen, and can quickly overwhelm the table. I order 2-3 dishes to start, and play it by ear from there. The terrific servers are more than happy to help with selections, and don’t seem to mind if you break things up. Go with a group of friends and pass the plates around; a good time is almost a guarantee.
There is a small but good list of mostly Spanish wines with normal markup, and they have an interesting choice of well-made and interesting house cocktails. Traditional sangria is available by the glass and pitcher, in both red and white wine versions. They are darn good – not too dry, not too sweet and when in season, filled with fresh fruit. Sherry is added in lieu of the more traditional brandy, or cognac that some recipes call for.
As noted above, the menu starts with pinchos (otherwise known in Basque as pinxtos), which are “little bites.” These are as simple as a bowl of salted almonds ($2), or more like Spanish “amuse bouche” of “French kisses” – brandy soaked prunes, stuffed with foie gras, wonderfully creamy, slightly sweet. They could easily substitute for a dessert ($2 ea). Another winner, griddled bacon-wrapped dates with warm honey. The result is complex, with the sweetness of the smoky dates, the meaty rich flavor of the bacon still tasting of the grill, and the warm honey, all combining to transport anyone who is familiar with the region right back to a cliff overlooking the Mediterranean ($2 ea).
I always order the wonderfully smooth and rich slice of chicken liver mousse, served with both soft bread and thin slices of crostini, and a little smattering of homemade pickled vegetables. The mousse is creamy and fine with just a tang of sherry ($7). They will bring you more bread if you ask politely. Other interesting pinchos include a marinated sheep cheese with rose-petal harissa and mint – definitely a Moorish-influence ($6). Be brave and order a plate of the fried anchovies with fennel and lemon. They are an unexpected delight; perfectly cooked, both the fried fennel and slightly sweet fried lemon give an interesting background flavor. On the side, one of my favorite sauces, a traditional Catalonia romesco which is typically made from nuts, garlic olive oil and a dried variety of red bell pepper, matches just right ($7).
In Catalonia in the spring, people get together to have large BBQs (sometimes whole towns do this as a festival), of grilled spring onions called calçots in Catalan. It is usually an all night feast of grilling, food, wine, song and dance and is a way to celebrate the start of spring after the long, dark, and wet winter in Catalonia. In the absence of calçots, Toro Bravo uses leeks; simple and tender, grilled until soft, a nice accompaniment to balance out some of the richer offerings on the menu. They come with a piquant salbitxada (pronounced Sahl-bee-tcha-dah), a Catalan version of romesco with bread crumbs, almonds, tomatoes, peppers and other seasonings. It’s rather addictive ($4).
Under the tapas section, almost everything I have tried has been stellar. I like Singing Pig greens and Toro Bravo seems to use them as a regular supplier. During the spring, the greens are available with grilled asparagus in a large cold bowl, the vegetables crisp and fresh, lightly and perfectly dressed in simple vinaigrette. The portion is big enough to share for two or three people ($8). In the winter, a salad of blood orange, arugula, red onion and espelette (a red pepper which is the cornerstone of Basque cuisine) gives a refreshing pause between courses ($8). Seared scallops with a more traditional Castillian romesco is a brilliant yet simple dish. Two large sea scallops, perfectly grilled, with a deep orange sauce were buttery and succulent, the romesco harmonizing just right without overwhelming. A week later the scallops were served in a white fennel sauce that was just as good ($13).
The tortilla Española (Spanish omelette) could be called the common unifying dish of Spain. When you’ve had a good tortilla with its layers of potatoes mixed with egg and onion, and slight saltiness, served at room temperature, you know why the Spanish often eat it at any meal. Unfortunately, the version at Toro Bravo is just ok. The potatoes need to be a little firmer for my taste, and the dish is slightly under-salted. ($7). A more successful choice, is Harissa stewed butternut squash with crumbled sheep’s cheese. This is a marvelous dish – salty, sweet, earthy and creamy, all balanced against the melting cheese oozing from the squash. I wouldn’t change a thing ($8).
Lamb rillets with apricots and honey showcase the Moorish influence on parts of the country like Seville and Granada. They arrive steaming hot in a Cazuela dish, a traditional thick ceramic which is built to insulate food ($14). Another satisfying dish is the lamb – a succulent small skewer of kebobs grilled Southern Spanish style with a cumin paste and perfect at medium rare. It’s a small portion, but very good; they hit the mark on this one ($7). Boquerones, fresh marinated anchovies loved throughout the country, and John Gorham’s version, served with piperade on thin slices of crostini, were a highlight – fresh and bright, the anchovies draped alluringly over the bread, giving the slightest taste of the sea, with layers of satisfying textures and tastes wrapping around each other. Though the thin bread used at Toro Bravo isn’t quite like the crusty thicker bread normally used in Spain, they are delicious ($6).
Moving on, prawns presented as “griddle shrimp with chilies” were spicy and succulent; three nestled together after being grilled in their thin shells. Eat them with your fingers, and you’ll be licking them to get every last bit of flavor ($9). Another great option is the salt cod fritters. These were some of the best I’ve had either stateside or in Spain. Small finger-sized nuggets, golden and crispy on the outside, creamy and succulent inside, with a deep cod taste missing in so many other versions. An aioli dipping sauce comes on the side. I would order them again and again ($8). Meatballs with tomato-almond sauce and peas hit all the right notes, providing unexpected earthy depth ($10), as do the surprisingly crisp, yet light and creamy oxtail croquettes with chili mayonnaise ($10).
There are so many bad versions of Brussels sprouts, many people are hesitant to try them. Here, combined with light dressing of sherry bacon cream, they are elevated to a new level. All the ingredients play nicely against each other ($7). Another one of my favorites is the spicy Bedouin-influenced Merguez North African sausages. The meat is moist, bursting with a complex combination of spices. They arrive with French fries which are just ok, harissa and sour cream ($13).
I once dated a woman from Peru, who decided it was her calling in life to teach me the mysteries of making good empanada. It’s an art keeping the dough thin enough to cradle the ingredients inside, without getting in the way of their flavor; try as I might, I never could get mine quite right. At Toro Bravo, though, they are perfect little pouches that fall away with the slightest crunch of teeth, revealing an unctuous, complex filling of lamb, mint and harissa. Don’t miss them ($8).
Many Spanish restaurants are judged by the paella, and Toro Bravo has two types. Paella fideos is a great dish to order if you want to reach out and try some lesser-known regional Spanish specialties. Thin noodles called fideos, in lieu of the more typical rice used in most paella, are cooked with whole clams in shell and duck chorizo in a broth. This dish is big enough to easily feed three as a main. The magic of this paella, which is a specialty of the Valencia region, shows how a few simple ingredients can marry together to create a cohesive whole of textures and deep rich tastes creating pure comfort food. Toro Bravo’s version is satisfying, with a deep base of broth and duck sausage mixed with the sweet shellfish taste of the clams, and thin slices of red bell peppers cooked until soft and tender. The noodles help bind everything and soak up all the other ingredients without being either too dry or mushy. This is Spanish soul food encapsulated in one dish. Earth and Sea together in a rustic preparation, high quality ingredients; served with both restraint of technique and flare of presentation – wonderful for sharing ($21). The regular paella is broad, taking liberties with ingredients from different regions, full of chorizo, grilled chicken, shrimp, clams and mussels. It did have that nice saffron color and back taste that saffron brings, and the rice was properly cooked, but it was slightly under-seasoned, didn’t have enough saffron, and paled in comparison to what I’ve had in Spain ($19).
A few additional larger dishes are available, but in my experience, aren’t quite as good. An example is the house-smoked coppa steak. I’ve liked it in the past, but more recently, I was disappointed. It was very over-smoked, and salty to the point where it burned. Adding salty olives to the already over-seasoned dish didn’t help ($14).
Toro Bravo has a full range of Spanish-influenced desserts on the menu, in this case better than average. Hazelnut ice cream with a glass of sherry poured over it at the last minute, shows a full range across the palate – first the sweet, almost overwhelming taste of sherry, the hazelnuts rushing up to meet it as a perfect foil, the ice cream smoothing out the flavors and bringing them all together ($7). In Spain, churros are pretty traditional after a night of drinking, and I have happy memories of standing in a foggy street, munching on them trying to keep the night from ending. These are straight, as you’d expect to see in Madrid, and are better than average; the fluted dough is never oily, just slightly sweet and crunchy, balanced by warm bittersweet chocolate in a separate cup for dipping ($7). The olive oil cake usually raises a few eyebrows of the uninitiated, but the first few bites push those worries away. It’s a comforting cake, lighter than you would expect, with a simple blood orange caramel once again playing with your senses as the components combine on your tongue ($6). Finally, a dessert of baked apples and pears with vanilla ice cream is just fine. It’s baked fresh, so takes a little time, and though it is a bit sweet for my palate, many people would find it satisfying ($7).
Spanish food is one of the world’s great cuisines, and although Spain has developed a high-end reputation in the past few years as the cradle of molecular gastronomy, everyday Spanish food is about quality and fresh ingredients, simply prepared. This is rustic food, meant for downing as tapas and accompaniments to glasses of Spanish Rosado or pitchers of Sangria. This is food to relax over, to nibble at, and to share with friends. I had dinner at the well known Piperade in San Francisco not too long ago, and though John Gorham’s food strays a bit farther from tradition, it compares favorably. The only thing missing at Toro Bravo is the strum of a flamenco guitar, and the dust rising under stomping feet, and the soul of Spain.
Highly recommended. If you are interested in learning more about this cuisine, I suggest “Pintxos”, by Gerald Hirigoyen. Here is a link to some flamenco videos. The cost of this review was about $260.00