Here is a dilemma one does not necessarily foresee when deciding to write about restaurants. How do you review a restaurant that has already been critiqued by every mainstream outlet and social media platform out there — multiple times? All the signature dishes have been dissected; chefs and owners interviewed; space, patrons, and food photographed, etc. What’s left to say that will enlighten or entertain your readership? Why should they waste their time on your experience?
The easiest approach, and the one with the most legs by far, is to eat at a well-regarded establishment and luck out with a bad night or, even better, catch a gastronomic temple at the inflection point of decline. When Fortuna smiles like this, a restaurant critic can make his bones on a celebrity chef—witness Peter Well’s (NYT food critic) hit jobs on Daniel Boulud and Thomas Keller. Moreimportantly, such revelations serve the dining public (at least those outside the 0.1%, see NYT Eschews a Per Se Relationship and Delivers for Diners). Thanks to Mr. Wells, I will not be writing overdrafts on the marital favor bank to coax my spouse into Per Se any time soon.
And yet MagoGuide really does not like to write negative reviews. Oh we will, and we will not pull any punches. But like losing your temper in any other circumstances, I find it a fundamentally dissatisfactory experience. I simply get angry when food is bad and yet I also feel bad for most everybody involved. I feel cheated of an experience that is at once vital and finite. If happiness is more about doing than owning, then a bad meal at a good or great restaurant is a culinary felony. Switching to an economic analogy, there is some gastronomic variant of loss aversion at play here— i.e., a bad meal is a double whammy compared to a good one.
So to return to the critic’s dilemma, if Team Mago can find a good restaurant that is relatively unknown, then it’s all gravy. But if the chosen establishment meets or exceeds expectations and it has been reviewed by everybody in Portland along with all their dogs (and I mean that literally with respect to Rip City), then it’s time for lemonade and scoobie snacks in review land.
It should come as no surprise that tool-making social primates love to gather for a meal, but how many diners and critics have actually considered the restaurant experience as a whole wherein food plays only a part? And I am not talking about Ferran Adria or Grant Achatz kind of extravaganzas, just a great weeknight out at a consistently good restaurant.
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Rostra rating: 4.5
Our recent expedition to Toro Bravo started with that great Portland culinary tradition of standing in line. The City of Roses is one of the few places on earth where queuing is preferred to securing a reservation by both restaurants and their clients. Anticipation is a key component of pleasure in general and good food in particular. I would swear that the palpable camaraderie of the long line we joined ten minutes before opening time at Toro Bravo owed to the crowd’s production and ingestion of some type of food pheromones amped by spatial proximity. Indeed Team Mago, loitering at the end of the line, caught the vibe long before we smelled the cooking aromas.
The communal scrum was disrupted by individual encounters with our hostess. Deuces were given the choice of bar seating or the chef’s counter. Watching the process unfold as couples in front of us made their seating selection confirmed my impression that the chef’s counter is the kid’s table equivalent in most restaurants. I can see why larger groups would not want their conversations constrained to their immediate neighbors, but then why do couples favor the bar, which has a very similar seating layout? Yes, you could probably get hammered slightly faster at the bar, but that did not seem to be the discriminator operating for this early dining crowd.
I decided that many folks do not want to see their food cooked when they go out to eat. Back in my expense account days, I spent a lot of time with clients in Michelin starred restaurants in Europe. I quickly learned about the differences in national food cultures. In France, fulsome praise of a chef or a dish always paid off with a dollop of good will towards whatever enterprise I was pitching, but in Spain I found my ecstatic culinary commentary inevitably led to embarrassing silence. Eventually a colleague took mercy upon me and explained that in Spain it is simply assumed that the food is going to be good and that calling attention to the food is a form of pandering, like telling an Angelino how lucky she is to live where February sports blue skies and mid-70s temperatures. So for some non-trivial percentage of the US dining public, the allure of eating out involves being waited on at some remove from the cramped, frenetic, and hot environs of a professional kitchen.
Another problem with the chef’s counter is that one invariably ends up seated next to a) grumpy bored people who would have preferred a table or the bar or b) Montucky hicks takin’ pics and pestering the line, the sous, the server, even the chef for information and recipes (that would be us). As for Team Mago, well we’re just too old to have someone’s baby, but we would adopt whoever invented the chef’s counter in a re-fire heartbeat.
The chef’s counter at Toro Bravo was a great dining experience. I was initially irritated with the construction of the counter itself. Why do you have seating arranged directly facing the line and then obstruct the view with solid partitions that stretch to just below eye level and then pile all sorts of prep product and utensils in the way as well? I got over it very quickly once I settled down to a fantastic pint of pFriem IPA and got into the culinary choreography.
In a long career of gastro-voyeurism, I have never seen such a tight line. Until I built a kitchen and then cooked in it, I thought that professional kitchens were sized based on the opportunity cost of lost dining space. I have come to understand that the less distance traveled, be it chef or commis, the faster high quality food can be produced. Toro Bravo executes a large menu to a packed house with just three line cooks and one sous chef/expediter. Now there is a lot of stuff going on out of sight in prep and wash land, but just about everything you eat hits Toro Bravo’s line at some point on its journey to you.
The line operates at a rhythm that is somewhere between a professional sports team and close siblings. They move around each other by instinct and usually without verbal cues. This is important because the coms channel needs to be left open for continuous rapid-fire exchange of kitchen jargon between the sous, the line, and the servers.
“Tasting menu for the bar. Fire paella for tables 2 and 4. Olive kisses for kitchen 3.”
“Paella all day chef?”
“Five Paella all day. Six bravas all day.”
Meanwhile the sous pivots to finish a chicken liver mousse because the garde manger (cold dish dilettante) and grillardin/friturier (grill bitch/fryolater fuhrer) are taking up the slack for the entremetier (sauté superstar) who is pounding out five-plus paellas. The kitchen ballet is so fluid and focused that it’s really more like four self-synchronizing quasi-telepathic tournants (utility infielders) than a specialized line with an expediter. Needless to say, I was riveted, almost missing my mouth with the fork as I anticipated the next move by this distributed cooking organism. The woman to my right, however, was checking her e-mail.
Maybe, I reasoned, this was a teachable moment (as in arrogant wannabe food critic learns humility instead of indulging in a rant about mobile phone wielding proles oblivious to culinary mastery within feet of their small screens). So I ate a little, drank a little, and then surprised my extrovert wife by striking up a conversation with my neighbor asking her what she thought of the paella since there is no way Team Mago will have room for this expansive delicacy in our already overtaxed innards.
I learned that she and her husband (next to her and watching the line I might add) had just returned from two weeks in Spain. They agreed that Toro Bravo combines classic tapas cuisine (primarily the Catalan and Andalusian variety) with Pacific Northwest twists that distinguish its cuisine from the Iberian norm. The husband opined that Toro Bravo uses a lot less salt than they do in Spain. I was amazed that they chose Toro Bravo after a couple weeks of the real thang. That is the kind of recommendation for our readers that I could not have generated with a traditional review.
OK, the food we ate—gotta mention it, I guess, but the bottom line is everything on the menu is good or great (rest assured MagoGuide will work hard to confirm this with multiple return visits—someone has to and it might as well be us). So try a mix of inside and outside your usual food preferences. Spherical olives and fried head-on anchovies are not to be missed any more than signatures like the coppa steak and paella.
Grilled fava beans: these were a revelation. Our server gave us the recipe: use only young/small fava beans; briefly parboil then grill; serve with compound butter containing Espelette pepper and smoked paprika. One of the favas was a bit long in the tooth and thus marred with some stringy bits, but it is getting late in the season for favas in Portland. The rest were wonderful.
Fried anchovies: I hoovered the plate so I have no right to kibitz, but I would have preferred them butterflied like they do throughout the Mediterranean and I have to wonder why they are flown in from Spain with the Pacific’s bounty so close to hand. Aren’t there any local anchovies available? Toro Bravo cures its own Spanish meats, so why not source closer to home for little fishies? Otherwise the dish was a fryolater tour de force with three very different ingredients (‘chovies, shaved fennel, and sliced lemons) all fried together perfectly. This ain’t easy, most of the time you are rewarded with slightly burnt fennel, soggy lemons, and undercooked fish—not at Toro Bravo.
Green strawberry salad: An amazing palette cleanser–salty, sweet, and a whisper of acidity. Use this dish strategically to move from tapas to raciones.
Oxtail croquettes: The oxtail is marinated, braised, and sauced with a liquid redolent of cinnamon and dark chocolate. This dish proves that oxtail pairs with anything. From the first bite, the diner is reminded forcefully and continually of ginger snaps with a hellacious coda-driven mouthfeel.
Coppa steak: Yep, its as good as everyone and their dog says it is.
Cheese plate: If you think it is a waste of stomach space when there is so much other good food to be had, you would be wrong. The selection of cow, goat, and sheep cheeses was on point and those monster bespoke crackers with honey are well worth it whether you eat the cheese or not.
Potatoes Bravas: These puppies look and taste like they were teleported in from Barcelona’s famous Bar Tomas. A very authentic take, but be sure to get the full Bar Tomás de Sarrià experience and ask your server for some hot sauce to accompany the excellent aioli.
Salt cod fritters: Not as authentic, but maybe better. These are shaped like sleek zeppelins rather than traditional cylinders, giving each fritter a higher surface space-to-interior ratio.
Mago Tip: Get outside your dining comfort zone and sit at the chef’s counter. If at all possible, sit at “kitchen 1”, which is the first two seats immediately to the right of the pass. Order a couple tapas or pinchos to nibble on with your first drink and then look at what is coming through the pass. Order what looks good next, the runners will be happy to tell you what the dishes are as they pick them up. This puts a kind of dim summy twist onto the tapas experience, substituting for the sumptuous displays that often grace Spanish tapas bars.
For another exceptional chef’s counter experience, check out our review of the Girl and the Goat in Chicago.
Here are some more photos taken from the pass…