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.