Culinary Matador

A new Spanish-inspired restaurant teaches us to grab the bull by the horns and sing its praises like we mean it.

By Camas Davis May 19, 2009 Published in the August 2007 issue of Portland Monthly

Before I’d even set foot in Toro Bravo, the Spanish-inspired tapas restaurant that opened up next to Northeast Portland’s Wonder Ballroom in June, strangers were calling me up at the office to express how “good” it was. Such elation took me by surprise, considering that people usually call me to rant about how bad a restaurant is. What wasn’t as surprising, however, is the way they couched their excitement: with an exasperated—nay, shocked—“It’s actually good.” Not a satisfied “It’s so good,” as in: “We deserve this,” as in: “Of course it’s good; this is Portland, after all.” {% display:image for:article image:1 align:left width:200 %}

I’d heard other locals—food writers, officemates, family members—put it similarly before, when discussing restaurants they like in Portland. Which prompts the question: What does “good“ or “actually good” really mean here? First, in a city that prides itself on its number of restaurants per capita, perhaps some of us are continually aghast at how few we’re even comfortable calling “good.” Second, we tend to forget that we’re not yet New York City (’nuff said). Third, our town’s culinary trend veers toward rustic, traditional comfort foods, rather than the post-haute molecular gastronomy that’s hitting larger cities these days. So when I hear that exasperated, “It’s actually good!” I interpret it to mean: A given restaurant’s excellent fava bean soup or its delicious meatballs seem so easy to make right; how could so many other restaurants in Portland make such simple, traditional food taste so wrong?

Gorham has imported the rugged class of a tapeo in Spain.

Such was my preoccupation when I walked into Toro Bravo for the first time. I’d already eaten chef and owner John Gorham’s superb food when he was a co-owner of Simpatica, the local catering company and supper club. On the other hand, since I’d found almost every other Spanish or tapas restaurant in town somewhat disappointing, I kept my hopes to a minimum, despite all the “actually goods.”

After my first bite of the salt cod fritters at Toro Bravo, disappointment seemed hard to come by, however. Deep-fried and perfectly crisp on the outside, the fritters had a soft, creamy, salty inside that pleasantly melted in my mouth. Neither did the tender crab and pork croquettes fail to provide a similarly delightful experience. A simple ramekin of sherried chicken-liver mousse—a good example of the way in which Gorham has deviated somewhat from straight Spanish cuisine without straying from the tapas spirit—was silky, rich and smooth. Even a tossed salad of greens from Singing Pig farms, mixed with grilled asparagus, chopped eggs and hazelnuts, was sublime, lovely, elemental.

Indeed, not one dish hasn’t sounded and tasted appealing to me at Toro Bravo—from the delicious grilled lamb chops flavored with cumin and preserved lemon, to the beef and pork meatballs cooked in an earthy tomato-and-almond sauce. And only on a few visits have dishes seemed slightly off: The peas with mint and house-cured bacon, while a splendid combination, were drenched in too much fat on one visit, as was the fidoes, a flavorful paella made with thin, short spaghetti noodles.

But whereas Gorham allows the influence of non-Spanish cuisines (at times Pacific Northwest, at times French) to inspire the robust, highly flavorful food here, when it comes to the atmosphere, he’s managed to import the singular rowdiness and rugged class of a tapeo in Spain. With a faultless melding of communal tables, various stand-up and sit-down bars and counters, bistro tables for two and larger tables for four, the mood is just as ideal for relaxing over a quick glass of wine and a bowl of salted almonds as it is for engaging in heated political conversations over a vast tapas spread. And as the efficient kitchen staff and waitstaff continually crank out orders, it’s easy enough to spend several hours with a bottle of bright Txakoli or a pitcher of spot-on sangria between you and your dining partners, as you work your way through marinated sheep’s cheese with rose petal harissa and mint, then fried fresh anchovies with fennel and lemon, followed by grilled spring onions and so on, until you’ve sampled nearly the entire (very affordable) menu.

Knowing all this, I think it’s safe to say that with the opening of Toro Bravo, Gorham has not merely redefined what a “good” restaurant is to us. He’s also given Portlanders an excuse to say not “This is actually good” but “This is good” with confidence, as in: We deserve this, as in: This is Portland.