I like everything but the name and the lines. The name is a set-up for headlines like “No Bull.” But the headline here should be “Great Tapas, Long Lines.” I won’t stand in lines. I will eat early or late to avoid them, because I will not wait. When I called for a reservation, the person who answered said they don’t take reservations, but if we came at 6 pm on a Sunday, there would certainly be a table. That was two lies: when we did as instructed, there was a reservation that had been taken for 13 people, and the only other tables available the chef needed in an hour for some of his friends.
I don’t mind liars, actually — they make good copy — but I still won’t stand in line. There are, however, a few tricks, and right around the corner was the buzz-hating reviewer’s new best friend, Super Bowl Sunday. Toro has a live fireplace, but no TVs. So this time we were able to walk in without a reservation at 7 pm, but don’t expect that kind of luck until next October during the close of baseball season.
For the benefit of those who will stand around for up to two hours, and those who won’t but are curious about what motivates those who will — here’s the report. Toro is a very good tapas bar. A lot of high seating and semi-communal bar seating in an open room stripped back to bare brick conveys something of the open-air quality of Spanish tapas bars. The food captures some of the authentic flavors of Spain, and much of the spirit of tapas. You might not think of owner Ken Oringer warming up for a tapas bar with a fusion restaurant with tiny portions (Clio) and a Japanese-style sushi bar (Uni). But tapas are small portions, and when they are right, they have the perfect minimalist quality of haiku, or sushi. In a highly flavored Iberian way, of course.
Food starts with a basket of crusty bread with big holes, excellent for picking up any stray bits of food or sauce. The smallest tapas are “pinchos”; ours, of ventresca (belly) tuna ($3), was a perfect morsel of the greatest canned tuna on the planet and came set up on a toast with some chopped tomatoes. Of course, ventresca tuna is also a multilingual pun on the name “Toro,” which in Japanese is used for sashimi-grade belly tuna.
Your real decision is whether to order paella (Valenciana/$32; vegetarian/$28). As a hedge against real hunger, it serves four easily and six or seven if you’ve been hitting the tapas reasonably hard. But it takes almost 30 minutes to make, so you have to decide whether you want it when you walk in.
The best buy here is maiz asado ($3.50), four pieces of grilled sweet corn (not an easy trick) covered with an addictive crust of garlic mayonnaise and salty cheese. A classic tapa, the hearty potato omelet known as tortilla ($5), is here more of a tease — three cubes about an inch on a side, with some garlic mayonnaise. Peasant food made tantalizing. Another classic, gambas al ajillo ($10), is five large shrimp in a creamy garlic sauce that just won’t quit. Here’s where you want that bread.
Toro departs from Spanish practice in offering some vegetables, and the grilled Brussels sprouts ($6) with plenty of butter are a spectacular treat. A cataplana of eggplant, onion, and red pepper ($6) looks grilled but is actually roasted and marinated slightly. Beet salad ($6) is a nice small plate of red and golden beet slices, not with goat cheese but with fruit.
Only two of our tapas crossed the line into pretense. In Spain, sepia tinta ($12) would be a rich little dish of cuttlefish in a sauce of its own ink. Here the cuttlefish is cut into fine strips like sashimi, and the sauce is concentrated to an ovoid of paste, with a single strip of white cuttlefish laid on top to make a leaf. There must be some chopsticks around here, somewhere? Ceviche de pulpo ($8) is a small plate of thin-sliced octopus in a sauce of lime and tomato, but also seaweed, soy, and scallions. Again, the style is more pan-Asian than Spanish.
The paella is the real deal, however, with the rice a little dense as in risotto, and none of the seafood (shrimp, littleneck clams, mussels) overcooked. Two pieces of chicken seemed a token portion; slices of a peppery salami added some more flavor. I am used to a little more saffron in paella Valenciana, but this was very, very good.