Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Miniature Pepper Grinders / Toro Bravo

Most of my eating in the last few days has centered on graduation and was funded in large part by my family (Thanks mom and dad!). Before they arrived, though, my house (plus Dave, minus Stephen, who so rudely opted to have dinner with his chemistry lab instead of us) went out to Toro Bravo to celebrate the end of finals.

Toro Bravo is one of my absolute favorite restaurants in Portland. It’s a tapas restaurant, famed not only for its food, but its no-reservation policy, popularity (Mark Bittman wrote about it!), and thus long waits. Luckily they also have an excellent wine list (mostly Spanish, focusing on the Basque region) and inventive cocktails. There’s also an awesome bar upstairs (more on that in a minute) that’ll let you know when your table is ready. I love the place not only because (almost) everything that I have eaten there has been outstanding, but also because I believe that tapas-style is the best way to eat. I love to share food, and I love to have food shared with me. There’s something so comforting about a communal table; not only do you get to taste so much more food, but you can talk about it.

They also have cute miniature Peugeot pepper grinders (note the picture at the top) on the table to go with the little mise bowls of kosher salt. The attention to small details such as this one is another reason why I love this restaurant. Not only can you season your food properly at the table (no need for a server’s assistance), the aesthetics of the condiments made the meal even more pleasant. Catherine was particularly enamored with the size. She even talked about borrowing one – permanently.

Anyway, I think that the best way to eat at Toro Bravo is to bring all of your friends. I did that for my birthday and we were able to eat our way through almost the entire menu. This time our group was smaller, so unfortunately I didn’t get to try as much of the new menu items (they change daily/seasonally) as I would have liked.

We started with drinks while we waited – I had the Sage Seville (kind of a gin and tonic with sage and mint added, strange but very good), Catherine and Dave shared a lemoncello and cherry concoction, and Andrew had water (He had been up all night finishing finals. Later he ended up with their version of a margarita). Once we sat down, we were greeted with roasted chickpeas. I change my opinion about these snacks every time I go there. Sometimes I eat a couple, realize that I hate how hard they are, and stop. Other times, like last Thursday, they are the perfect salty accompaniment to my drink.

After contemplating the menu for a while, we settled on the pickled vegetables and olives to start and the following:*

Duck Liver Mousse Terrine with house-made mustard and pickles

This was awesome. Andrew and I ate most of it because it made Catherine squeamish and it was far away from Dave on the table. The liver mouse was airy enough to not be overwhelming, but still decadently rich (it was wrapped in bacon – not on the menu!). The spicy mustard alongside helped to balance the fattiness of the mousse and the pickles lent a nice sour touch at the end.

Grilled Radicchio Salad with green olive toast and Manchego vinaigrette

I rarely eat radicchio on its own, mostly because I don’t think about it, but now maybe I will, as long as it’s with Manchego. I’ve already talked about my love for this cheese, and this salad was another place in which it shined. It mellowed out the radicchio in a way that didn’t hide the bitter flavor, but instead brought it into harmony with the subtle sharpness of the cheese. The olive toast didn’t do much for me – it tasted good, but seemed a little out of place on the plate.

Sautéed Spinach with pine nuts and raisins

Sweet, buttery, green – a solid side that added much needed color to the meal.

Moroccan Tuna with dried cherry couscous

Catherine’s favorite. I thought the couscous outshone the tuna (this tuna was cooked through, and I prefer mine raw or rare), but I always love fruity grain pilafs.

Oxtail Croquettes with spice roasted chili mayonnaise

I am obsessed with this dish. The croquette, I think is the perfect vehicle for such a strange meat. They pop in your mouth – the cornmeal crust gives way to just the right amount of batter surrounding the shredded, braised meat. The mayonnaise on top cools the bite down a bit (you still have to be careful though: Catherine burned her tongue), and then later mixes in with the excess juices to provide a savory vehicle for extra bread eating. We had to shoo the waitresses each time they tried to clear the dish away.

For dessert, we shared the Churros and Chocolate: Spanish donuts, coated in cinnamon, served with an espresso cup filled with melted, just ever so slightly sweetened chocolate. Decadent, but yummy. When I came here for my birthday, they stuck a candle in one of the donuts. It was comical.

It was early when we finished dinner, so we decided to go upstairs to the Secret Society for another drink. Apparently the bar was the home of several secret societies in the past; now they specialize in old-school cocktails, each with a date of conception on the menu. The atmosphere is upscale without being intimidating – I feel more mature in there, but definitely not out of place.

It was crowded so we sat at the bar. As it turns out, it was a great decision. We struck up conversation with the bartender and he gave us lots of samples. One we tried – the Green Flash – I'll have to go back again and order. It's main ingredient is a white rum, which I don't normally enjoy, but mixed with Chartreuse (hence the name), it had an intriguing floral flavor that wasn't too sweet.

Catherine and Dave split another drink – an Irish coffee, which was beautiful but took a long time to concoct.

Andrew and I both ordered the Corpse Reviver #2 – my new favorite drink. It consists of a delicate balance of Aviation gin, Lillet Blanc, Cointreau, lemon juice, and Trillium absinthe – a strong yet not overpowering anise flavor from the gin and absinthe shone through the distinctive tartness of the lemon and Cointreau. We’re going to try to recreate it, as soon as we can get our hands on some Lillet (harder to find than you think – anyone know a store that carries it?).

Buzzed, full, and happy, I returned home to clean the house and get ready for the weekend.

*You’ll have to forgive the inconsistent photo quality here. It’s the first time I tried to take food pictures in a restaurant and wasn’t sure about the flash, etc. Squinting helps.

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  1. Does the Secret Society offer a Sazarac? Tried it at Parish in Little Five - it was quite good.

  2. I'm pretty sure they do. Haven't tried it, though.