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The transporting power of Spanish food dropped several notches once it went prime time. Tapas are to blame. Many modern Spanish restaurants are proud to be precious, serving niblets that carry little distinction except for the uncanny way that they all seem to visually complement the mosaics that creep from the restaurant’s entranceway to the john. These restaurants are known for catering to public dieters, Sangria bingers, and blowbags who are quick to pat themselves on the back for being hip to the ordering procedure. There’s little lust in the cuisine itself, which, often, isn’t even Spanish.
Toro Tapas’ cause isn’t helped any by its location in Shirlington, which gets my vote for Capital of NoVa Vulgarity. Did this “village” even exist last week? Aesthetically, the restaurant doesn’t offer much to relieve the prevailing mood of spontaneous development (the space was formerly occupied by a California Pizza Kitchen), although it does quickly reveal some nonculinary appeals. For one, tapas portions allow you to do dinner in increments, and with a movie theater across the street, that means you could conceivably plan a night in the village that includes pre- and post-theater meals. More substantially, on two visits in a row, I’m treated to waiters who seem reasonably knowledgeable about Toro’s list of rioja, rare wisdom even in many restaurants that charge a galleon’s haul for the stuff. A respect for wine is an offspring of kitchen proficiency, right?
Sometimes. Toro is the “Home of Spanish Tapas,” according to its matchbooks, and it tries to prove as much by exhibiting a strong regional bias on its menu and wine list. (The latter also includes a small offering of Spanish sherries.) But if, as I’ve often heard suggested, a Spanish restaurant is only as good as its paella (Toro serves three versions, one vegetarian), this one’s in trouble. The beauty of the dish is that it contains enough stuff so that the shortcomings of one ingredient can be overcome by the exquisiteness of others. Unfortunately, Toro’s paella breaks the unspoken agreement that scrawny shrimp should at least be buttressed by moist rice or memorable chorizo.
I’m more prone to judge a place by its spuds, and the ones served here deliver a mixed message. It seems fair to assume that potatoes billed as “fried” should bear some hint of actual fryingcrispness, or maybe some brownbut the ones we’re served seem to have come fresh from a boil. Despite that disappointment, the potatoes are all but addictive; their pepper sauce/aioli concoction saves the day. We have similarly conflicting feelings about a lot of Toro’s tapas. Neither the rabbit with wine sauce nor the garlicky chicken “tenders” will win any fashion contestsis that sauce really packaged poultry “gravy”?but both turn out to be delicious, delectably moist. Unlike in the paella, plump chorizo does nearly redeem a grilled dish that also includes puny scallops and shrimp. I’d prefer if the ceviche didn’t appear to have been scooped from a bucket, but the seafood is invigorating, nearly as tart as the citrus fruit that made it that way. And the near absence of chopped fruit doesn’t keep the pitchers of sangria from disappearing quickly.
In three visits to Toro, I’m never served anything that’s even near-perfect; the luscious spanakopita comes closest, followed by the fabulously simple button mushrooms cooked in butter and garlic. When the kitchen bombs, it does so with all guns blazing. Judging from the quality of the shellfish I’m served, I wouldn’t be surprised if Toro bought its crustaceans and mollusks from a lab in the Midwest. The tuna salad that’s stuffed inside a tomato could be used for grout. One night I’m served an “onion-and-potato” omelet that contains ham but neither of the above; on another I’m treated to a plate of cold meats and cheese that includes a piece of manchego garnished with a bit of what looks like grill char. Aside from the poached pears, one done in red wine and the other in white, the desserts are yawners hidden beneath visually impressive swirls of sauce.
Toro does provide its share of nice touches; the bread is good and crusty, for example, and it’s served with a tangy olive-and-pepper relish. The bullfighting mural notwithstanding, it’s refreshing that Toro is resigned to being an unfashionable restaurant that happens to be committed to Spanish cuisine. The night I find myself at the bar surrounded by Spanish-speaking customers, I even harbor hope that dinner will help me forget the trauma I suffered trying to park my car. Then the bartender, who decides to address me alternately as “chief” and “sport,” turns up the television so loud that I’d need to holler if I wanted to ask him to decide on one nickname or the other. Was he trying to remind me where I was?
Toro Tapas, 4053 S. 28th St., Arlington, (703) 379-0502.
Not coincidentally, one reader called in requesting a survey of local Spanish restaurants. He’s curious: Are there any as good as El Rincon? I hope so. The night I stop in for dinner, the restaurant is completely empty, yet I still have to fight with my waiter not to sit us in Siberia. In the time it takes him to return to take our order, I could recopy the menu by hand. The potatoes we’re served are almost certainly microwaved, and we only wish someone had done the same to the black beans, which are just plain cold. In one way, the enchiladas that the waiter recommends are a revelation. Who knew that chicken, too, could be fishy?
El Rincon Espanol, 1826 Columbia Rd. NW, (202) 265-4943.
Eatery tips? Hot plates? Send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Or call (202) 332-2100 and ask for my voice mail.