Ken Oringer's five Boston area restaurants—including the flagship Clio in the Eliot Hotel, sashimi bar Uni, pizza and salumi bar Coppa, taqueria La Verded, and the original Toro in Boston's South End—are still key players in the Boston scene, but the new branch of Toro recently opened in Chelsea is his first move in New York. The hype surrounding it has been pretty extreme, even by New York standards. Folks want to see what he and his right hand man Jamie Bissonette can do.
I spent several years working for Ken at several of his restaurants, including the Boston Toro in its opening year, so I was particularly interested so see how the concept and the menu have evolved in the almost eight years that it's been open.
Like the original location, the space is high-ceilinged and wide open with lots of hard surfaces—this isn't a spot for a quiet meal, even with a moderately full dining room in the early evening, it gets loud. I haven't yet hit it on a weekend night, but reports range from raucous to deafening.
On their 60+ item menu you find a mix of their old stand-bys (creamy-centered salt cod croquetas served with tempura-fried lemon rings, their signature Mexican-style grilled corn, and a Catalan sea urchin, lobster, and sea bean stew), along with some newer dishes (a pig's ear terrine with king crab and yuzu juice, plancha-griddled blowfish tails with moroccan spices, and a pressed sea urchin sandwich with pickled mustard seeds and miso butter). I can't offer you a completely legit opinion of the food since I used to work for the man and have been recognized every time I've come in, but needless to say, I worked for him for a reason, and while his palate may veer towards the wacky, the flavors almost always hit the mark.
Though the menu is dominated by small plates—it is a tapas bar, after all—there are four large format paellas on the menu, which given their size (the smalls feed two to three and the large can feed four to six) are actually some of the best deals on the menu if filling up is on your agenda. A Lobster and Black Truffle version ($90/45) is easily the most decadent, and they do offer a chicken, chorizo, and seafood-based Velenciana ($76/38) as well, but my favorite is the Paella de Conejo y Lumach ($68/34), made with rabbit and snail.
According to Spanish food expert Jeff Koehler's 2006 book La Paella, the oldest versions of paella Valenciana from the 19th Century were made with either rabbit or chicken (though more commonly the former), local Spanish snails known as vaquetes, and several types of beans in addition to the saffron-scented rice.
Made with starchy short-grain calasparra rice and cooked at a rapid boil in a wide cast iron paella (the pan for which the dish is named), the dish comes out with the creaminess of an Italian risotto, though richer and more intensely flavored, the aroma of sweet smoked paprika and deeply reduced broth permeating the grains.
You'd be hard pressed to call Toro a traditional tapas bar other than in spirit, and Toro's version ditches the beans in lieu of seasonal vegetables—currently they use carrots and sunchokes—and finishes the dish with mint and scallions. The rabbit is braised prior to being added to the paella in order to maximize tenderness and juiciness, while the snails are wild Burgundy snails—fatter, plumper, and more tender than the Spanish variety.
The paellas are large and take about 30 minutes to cook to order. That's time enough to knock back a couple cocktails and slices of olive oil-y tortilla.
Peep the slideshow above to see how the whole thing is made from start to finish.