eating of hearts and minds (and some other obscure parts)
I learned last week that it’s hard to have a food blog and the stomach flu at the same time- several days of living on rice, apple sauce and crackers left me about as bland as my diet. I finally got back on the wagon Monday and put the three meat rule* into full effect at Toro.
I like Toro, although the long waits and notoriously snooty hostesses make me forget that sometimes. But once in the door, the service has always been good and the meals memorable. (Chicky and I have also come up with what we think is a killer strategy to combat the inevitable 45-minute wait: head across the street to Seiyo for a cocktail and a sushi snack.)
One of my gold standards for restaurants is that they have to serve food that I cannot, (or would rather not) make in my own kitchen. This is why I shun things like pasta with red sauce and chicken when eating out. And this is why Toro is perfect: Medjool dates wrapped in Jamon Serrano, rabbit pate and grilled beef heart? Heck yeah.
I started my meal with a Calimocho, or as my Basque cousins would write, Kalimotxo, a refreshing and not too alcoholic mix of equal parts red table wine and Coca-Cola. Sounds gross, I know, but it’s not. The wine and the cola compliment and cut one another, making a refreshingly balanced drink that doesn’t feel like you’re sipping a hangover, which is often my reaction to restaurant sangria.
Once seated, Chicky and I had more than two full pages of tapas to choose from. This posed a bit of a quandary as there are lots of things one might want to try, but not necessarily a corresponding amount of space in one’s stomach. Tough choices were required.
We skipped the ubiquitous gambas ajillo and tortilla Española (partly because I can and do make those in my own kitchen). We also skipped the Kobe beef sliders, which I think are a most preposterous thing to have on a tapas menu. Seriously, who goes to an authentic Spanish restaurant and orders sliders? Plenty of people, Ken Oringer would likely say, but that still doesn’t make it right.
Instead, we decided to make a meal of things that most people would rather pretend didn’t exist: beef heart, fried calf brains, smoked tongue, braised ox tail and a roast marrow bone. Though this stuff is starting to make regular appearances on menus across the city, you won’t find it in my kitchen; I think it takes a special kind of cook to make calf brains palatable.
The dishes arrived as they were ready, giving the meal an element of anticipation that I love. The heart arrived first, a pile of thinly shaved deep red meat atop a toasted piece of bread. It was salty and tender, almost like a prosciutto. The fried calf brains were next, mixed into a salad of dandelion greens and topped with a poached egg. While there is little that I like more in this world than a salad with a poached egg in it, the brains weren’t for me. Though they were spongy like a sweetbread, they had an almost fishy flavor that turned my stomach… kind of like liver. Nonetheless, we forced ourselves to clean the plate.
“I wonder if this meal will make me smarter and more loving,” Chicky joked as we polished off the heart and dug into the brains.
The tongue was another dish I likely could have done without… heavily smoked and thinly sliced, the meat tasted like glorified bologna, and though the lentils that accompanied it were amazing, I don’t think I’ll be ordering it again.
Next was an uni bocadillo, by far my favorite of the evening. Fresh sea urchin was spread on crusty bread, topped with a miso mustard and then put on a hot grill. The uni was perfect- smooth, with a slight taste of the sea, like an oyster with a better mouth-feel. The foie gras, seared atop a piece of toasted bread smeared with apricot preserves, was also quite good. But then, I think it’s had to mess up anything with that much fat in it.
Our find and delight of the night was the Asado de Huesos– roasted bone marrow with oxtail marmalade. The bone was nearly as long as my forearm, split lengthwise and just slightly seasoned. We couldn’t get enough of the stuff, slathered on bread like a good olive oil. It was intensely flavored, the fat cutting the saltiness. The oxtail was similarly delicious, braised until it was fall off the bone tender. One might have thought it was a braised short rib if the menu didn’t say otherwise (braised short ribs are also on the menu, but they aren’t nearly as good).
Overall, it was a meal that I’d do over again, though I might switch out the brains and order the roast corn, which I always love. The meal also inspired me to do something new in my own kitchen, namely head to the sushi wholesaler on Saturday to get some uni and try my hand at a bocadillo. As they say, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.
* The three meat rule: A deLuzuriaga family standard that states no meal is complete without at least three meats.