About three + years ago I noticed a new barbecue place called Russell Street Ribs. I was turning around to try to find a parking place at a restaurant I love about a block from there, Echo, and saw the pink neon pig in the window and decided I had to try it some day, because I love barbecue, and the building looked like it might have somewhat better ambiance than the average rib joint. At that time I knew nothing of N. Russell just North of MLK, and when I made it to Russell Street Ribs, and went back subsequent times in the next year or so, the neighborhood along Russell there struck me as nothing but a wasteland heading over the hill towards Emmanuel Hospital and N. Interstate.

But wait, now there’s gentrification! What started on Lower North Russell and Interstate (at Widmer Gasthaus and Mint/820,) and moved to Mississippi, then spread to Killingsworth and Williams, has finally migrated over the last couple of years to upper Russell at MLK. First the rib place. Then Mark Wooley, famous Portland gallery owner, redid the Royal Hiberian Lodge into the Wonder Ballroom, Gallery, and Bar, and now right next door, a beautifully refurbished building has been transformed into Toro Bravo. Two winters ago I actually stood in front of the bleak building that became Toro Bravo, waiting to enter a Dandy Warhols concert, and the last thing I could imagine was the potential lurking right beside me. And now, the two blocks of Russell North of MLK are the place to be. I know gentrification is hard on the people it dislocates through higher rents and urban renewal, but as a lover of old buildings and fine modern cuisine, I love it when eateries and cultural establishments turn worn out city blocks new and vital again.

Usually I don’t take the group to hot and happening places like Toro Bravo if they don’t take reservations, because it’s just too hard to get any group over 4-6 people in without knowing we will have a table in our name. I just couldn’t resist Toro Bravo though. Although it had only been open about a month when I read about it, everything I read was good. And I started reading about it everywhere. And as it happens, people in RR, since the beginning, have lamented the lack of Spanish/Tapas places here. They are usually too expensive for the small servings you get, or poor quality. As I was trying to do something different with the RR itinerary though, I forced myself to choose from our slim pickin’s here as far as tapas places. I was all ready to settle on Pantenegra in NW, which has a beautiful space in NW Portland, but then I started reading all these comments about how the owner frequently comes unhinged there and screams obscenities at his customers over issues like corked wine. So that became a big NO THANK YOU. So I settled on Olea and put it on the upcoming roster, even though it’s way too fancy and expensive to be a tapas place, they do have some interesting Mediterranean/Spanish fusion cooking there. Then of course the next day I read about Toro Bravo, and suddenly I had many Spanish/Mediterranean places on the summer roster. The places are here MM & LG, where are you?

The cow loses it, but has good aim.My initial impression of Toro Bravo is that the people connected with it are nice folk. Perhaps it’s just that they haven’t become old and jaded yet, but they seem like they have thought out their restaurant well and want to be kind and helpful to their patrons. When I called almost three weeks before our dinner, I was told they did not take reservations, but they would put me on the waiting list for July 6th for 8:00pm, even though they were sure to be packed. To be honest, when I checked about 5:15 I didn’t expect to find any mention of our party there in their black book, but sure enough, there it was, Jackie for 10 at 8:00. I explained my difficulty to the hostess, that I had ended up with 15 people (I would never mess around like this with a real reservation.) She explained to me that that was going to be really hard, as basically they only had a table for 12, a table for 10, some tables for 4, and a bunch of tables for 2. She told me that when I came back she would do the best she could to seat everyone, but that a smaller table would have to be involved, probably not near to the first table, and probably not at exactly the same time. Bummer.
When I arrived back at 7:30, all around good pal Pam in tow after a couple of drinks at the soon to be lamented Pasta Bangs (a victim of N. Mississippi gentrification), the young bookishly trendy hostess was very excited, as she had a plan. We still would have to be at two tables, but we would at least be next to each other in one corner. The table for four was about to open up, and she advised us to start occupying it as soon as possible, so she didn’t get in trouble for holding tables with all the people who were waiting. She told us the larger table was on dessert, and would soon be empty. Pam and I sat down and had some of the crunchy complimentary chickpeas place before us, and enjoyed the lovely picture of iced water placed at every table. In a few minutes we were joined by my great new co-reviewing friend Sara (I’m cheap, I practically adore anyone who will stoop to my level and help me write these things. And it doesn’t hurt that she’s had a very intriguing life either). Finally place number four was filled by our new friend Esther, ex-San Franciscan and house boat dweller.

Next to cycle up, those earth-loving jocks!, our dear old dining buddies Tori and Dave. I explained the situation of the bigger table soon to open up, and as the restaurant was packed, and stuffy (no goose bump inducing air-conditioning at this place,) and as they had surely exerted both their legs and their fertile minds and wits riding through the classy but always dangerous residential streets on their way to dinner, they decided to wait outside. When our next new dinee Kimberly showed up after a couple of minutes, I decided to temporarily abandon my place to join Tori and Dave scouting out new RR members. At this point I knew what no one else looked like except for my recent eager dining acquaintance Aruna, so it wasn’t going to be easy. Basically I had to wait for confused looking people to enter the restaurant, and then be directed outside to confused looking me.

Naturally the rude barbarian swine (but expensively dressed and well-dyed rude barbarian swine), occupying the large table took forever to leave. What should have been 15 minutes stretched to at least 45 minutes. But this was not Toro Bravo’s fault, and once the table did open, multitudes of staff descended on the finally empty table and prettied it up in record speed, much like some sort of sped up “Roadrunner Visits Toro Bravo” cartoon. (beep beep!!!) By this time almost all of our new members had joined us on the sidewalk, Aurora and Joe with their unspeakable professions (believe me, that’s how I feel about my profession – zzzzzz), John and his dazzling new iPhone, Lynne, our extra extra special new member who found us through our internet site!!!!!, and Aruna, in Portland only two months and eager to try new food and meet new friends. Once we were seated, we were also joined by Bruce with the nice friendly handshake, and Aruna’s friend Bob. I had sadly gotten back to our 15th diner too late, and she wasn’t able to make it. But thank you new eatin’ friends, I hope I see your faces again soon, and we are joined by other new eatin’ friends and old eatin’ friends alike!

A couple of notes on the restaurant itself, then on to actual food talk!!!! (This is a Dining Report full of EXCLAIMING!!!!!!!) The restaurant, as alluded to by Sara, was relatively simple, not a lot of clutter and gew-gaws, but attractive, understated, and classy, mostly reddish orange walls and dark wood. The room was medium sized, but packed. On the west wall a curtain ran about 1/2 of the distance, and behind it were tiny round tables, perhaps a temporary place to drink while waiting for a table, or maybe just for people who are desperate to eat and are only going to order the smallest tapas. I thought Toro Bravo was very pretty, and I found the service excellent and nice without exception. Even when our small table was lingering toward the end of the meal, waiting for the larger table to finish, and I asked the girl helping out at our table if someone else needed our table, we were assured no, stay as long as we like, although I noticed when the dregs of our table (okay, Pam, Sara, and me,) migrated toward the other table, our table was suddenly filled with four new eager diners. Toro Bravo seemed very willing to treat us well to a fault, which I found quite refreshing coming from the new “it” place.

One weakness you might find in this review is the fact that the two people who wrote the majority of it (okay, I wrote almost all of it, but Sara helped in her just right length way), were at the same table, the small table. I have almost no idea what happened at the big table, except for some comments and dining slips kindly submitted by the people sitting there (as always Tori, you are mommy’s most special helper!!!) I saw much giggling going on around the area of the iPhone, and I know the east end of the table was on some lamb eating frenzy, but other than that, I missed all the fun conversation and hearing about all the new folks, except outside, beforehand. And while I did pine away many times, wishing we could all be united, at the same time, it seemed that our table was destined to be. Our foursome had almost the perfect Toro Bravo dining experience, we all loved it. As Esther was heard to exclaim (I think jokingly), “I’m coming back tomorrow”. And how can this woman not know food, she’s from San Francisco for Peat’s Sake? (Who is this Peat guy anyway, and why does he get his own sake?) It probably didn’t hurt that three out of four of us had been to Barcelona and adore it (maybe someday, Pam.) I’m not sure how many people at the other table had been to Spain or adored it. But maybe it helped our table have good ordering Karma (see Aruna, I know about Karma.) Or maybe it was because at least three of us had read that week’s WW review and knew what was supposed to be yummy.
Anyway, finally …. here’s what Sara had to say about our dinner !!!!!!!!………..

I read the Willamette Week review, and like a good sheep I based my order on what the article had to say. The cheese itself was mild and fresh. I ordered the fried Anchovies, with lemon and fennel. The description did not quite explain the actual plate, because surprise, the lemon and fennel were also fried! I thought they would be fresh to offset the fishiness of the anchovies. And yet, the anchovies were terrific and not salty or fishy, so I just grazed at the fried fennel, and my table mates ate the fried lemon. This is the type of plate that is beautifully monochromatic while showing off the details of the different foods (especially the lemon slices) deserving of a picture. I also ordered the Radicchio salad, which cost only $8, and came in a large bowl, a heaping of grated papery cheese, mixed with a lightly zesty touch of dressing (manchego vinaigrette), accompanied with two slices of toasted baguette piled high with olive tapenade. I thought this was a bargain; our table of four ladies could hardly finish it, and it was a healthy midnight snack (yes, I put away even more food after I got home!). I tried Pam’s sheep cheese in rose petal harissa and mint, and must say that I was expecting something completely different. The sauce was a bit spicy, and I couldn’t taste the mint, nor would I ever say there is rose petal in that sauce. So, it was good, just not anything I thought regular old crushed pepper couldn’t have achieved.

My main dish was a wonderful clam bake with cured ham in a tomato broth. It was just too good to describe, plenty of clams, and suffice to say, I managed to finish them as the waitress was trying to clear my plate. “No! I must finish these two clams,” I puffed, and scared her off. The highlights of the foods I shared was the Fideo (vermicelli type pasta with paella accoutrements) and though there was duck sausage in there (I don’t usually eat fowl) I couldn’t tell what it was other than good, juicy sausage with flavor, and here I run out of words to describe the dish, other than when I think of Spanish food, this tomato, clam, sausage, pasta, and who knows what mild spices (paprika maybe?) was muy delicioso.

The other huge surprise of the night was the steak. Again, I had no idea what the marinade was, nor the spices, but this was not just a nice hunk of steak. It was full of juicy flavors that danced around in my mouth several minutes after the last bite. Plus, it was so tender, it did what steak should do: melt in your mouth.

Dessert was good, panna cotta baked in small clay dishes, topped with cooked strawberries. I thought it was a nice light dessert (after all of the other eating I did), and accompanied with a ultra-foaming $3 latte (cheaper than Starbucks!) it was a great ending to a wonderful meal with fun new people. The setting was nice and uncomplicated, and service was a good pace, and patient waitresses seemed to respond to our every whim.

Thank you Sara, there’s nothing as intelligent and well spoken as a person who agrees with me. (As everyone should know by now!!!!!)

In all fairness, however, not everyone was as enchanted by everything they ordered. Aurora, who does not eat meat, had the unsettling discovery that the green beans braised with preserved lemon and tomato contained meat. This is a rather serious omission from T.B., surely the owner must realize how many vegetarians dine in his establishment, just because he used to own a meat company doesn’t mean he can slip meat, tasty or not, into dishes without warning people. I can understand Aurora having a negative reaction when that occurred. Thanks for writing that down on the back of your dining slip Aurora, I had no idea it had happened, and slip-ups like that should be noted, as not everyone in RR does eat meat. Joe and Aurora also had the cod fritters, which had very mixed reviews, WW saying they were perfectly prepared, but Joe and Aurora’s “greasy and mushy in the center”. They were also probably disappointed by the portion on the intriguing sounding griddle shrimp with chillies, the portion was very small (3) for $9 ($3 per shrimp!) They did have a positive recommendation on the sheep cheese with mint, saying it had “excellent subtle citrus notes at the end”. Other things they ordered, and seemed to have more neutral feeling about were the somewhat unusual white sangria, the toasted almonds with sea salt, the pork rillettes with red wine braised cherries and strong mustard (I assume Joe had that one), and the dessert items of berries and the crema (I’m thinking that was flan-like). Thanks for your comments guys, I have to be able to mention the bitter with the sweet.

Aruna commented to me that she liked her food, (salt cod fritters and polenta with English peas), but that she found things a bit saltier than she was used to. Dave also mentioned he found both the fried anchovies with lemon and fennel and the oxtail croquettes (oxtail croquettes, is that even possible?) on the salty side as well. (Although he liked the oxtails). That is certainly something I do remember from my travels in Spain, they like salt, especially in the North, in Santiago de Compostela I had a plate of salt heaped tiny green roasted peppers, and in somewhere in the Basque Country, maybe Hondaribbia, I had this plate of sardines so salty I felt brined and cured after eating them. So if a Spanish dish has the actual word “salt” in the title, (like salt cod fritters), expect it to be like chewing on a salt lick.

As for Dave’s “better half”, Tori said the green gazpacho with scallop ceviche was quite good, “with not as much spice as your usual tomato gazpacho (this one was tomatillo based), but that she didn’t miss it”. She also enjoyed the roasted eggplant with sweet pepper lamb ragu and mahon cheese. She said the Red Sangria was fine, just not unusual. As alluded to previously, the East end of the big table all had the grilled moorish lamb ribs with saffron and apricot stewed onions. Lynne mentioned to me that the lamb was incredibly mild tasting, but there seem to be disagreement at her end of the table over the merits of the apricot sauce. I never heard what Bruce thought of his pork and crab croquettes (this place was croquette crazy!!!) but he sent me a nice note thanking me for the dinner, so I hope he enjoyed them tons. I’m thinking the mysterious dining slip I have is from Kimberly, and she had the griddle shrimp and the pan fried chicken breast with piperade and poached egg. She also wrote that her panna cotta was wonderful, a frequent remark from the people who selected it (I myself found the stewed stawberries, or cherries, or whatever, not my favorite, as I’m not a berry/cherry fan, but I did like the creamy rich panna cotta underneath.

As to what we had at our smaller table, “the perfect table”, Sara commented on most of it in her astute fashion. It was nice just putting all the food on the center of the table and eating a bit of everyone’s dishes (not to mention their food). Esther started out with the pickled vegetables and marinated olives. They were fine, although I always find small olives an exercise in futility. Especially as I kept forgetting (it’s amazing how many times one person can keep repeating the same dumb action) that I had spit my little pits out on my plate. I don’t know how many times while scooping up and chomping down my food (I’m a refined and delicate eater) I bit down incredibly hard on one of this nasty little pits, five times maybe. Right after that Esther figured out that the cute little silver bowl the waitress had put on the table was for the pits. Who needs to keep their teeth after 40 anyway? Actually, this reminds me of another nice touch at Toro Bravo, this place overwhelms you with little bowls and fancy dining implements for everything, they had to have spent a fortune on high end looking little silverware. Each time someone would get another dish, out would come four new pieces of minuscule silverware, one for everyone. very nice. i hate a fork I’ve already slobbered all over.

As it happens, I left the table when Esther ordered. She didn’t hear my order. So surprise, surprise, we had one cross-over dish at our table, the house smoked coppa steak with olive oil poached potatoes, chopped olives and salbitxada (I STILL don’t know what on earth that is.) I don’t think either Pam or Sara regretted the fact that we had two orders, this steak was so delicious, we could share it even more heartily. In fact, it was so rich and filling I actually grabbed one of the multitudes of mini forks and went running over and shoved a piece in Tori’s face for her to try. I keep thinking I won’t find better beef preparations than some of those I have experienced in the RR dinners, and then another delicious beef discovery. Why don’t other people smoke steak? It’s probably not that easy, since smoking often makes everything dry and tough, but this was rare and tender.

I much preferred Sara’s radicchio salad to my salad of Singing Pig Greens with Oregon berries (huge fresh raspberries), cana de oveda (it seemed to be a goat cheese,) and hazelnut vinaigrette, mainly because her dressing was more muted, and mine more sharp and tangy. As Sara also pointed out, paying $8 for a salad is unfortunately pretty common these days, but having it serve four with some left over says something special about the portions. I tried both a fried lemon and one of Sara’s anchovies, and liked them both, although horror of horrors, they reminded much of the local smelt that my father use to love to buy, bread, and fry to crunchy fishiness. You would often just chew away, bones and all, as they are too small to de-bone. Pam’s marinated sheep cheese was quite mild, and nice, although I tend not to be a fan of those woolly cheeses. And the rose petal was so subtle, none of the usual thoughts of devouring a bar of Dove Soap came to my mind as often does anytime I eat anything with pulverized rose in it. As for Pam’s Fideos with duck and clams paella, um, um delicious, which is saying a lot, as I have never been a fan of fishy, saffrony paellas. With the tiny noodles and spicy sausage, it made me think of some delightful Asian dish. As a final note, Esther and Sara both went into seizures of joy over the quality of their lattes. In fact, Esther and Sara went into many spasms of excitement as the eating progressed (yes, you too Pam,) something that made me feel happy, as head restaurant picker and chooser. As for the rest of you big table dwellers that had so-so feelings about your food, you win some and you lose some. I was still exceedingly happy to have you all at this dinner, and hope your dining experience made up for some of the food you weren’t enraptured about. Sad but true, I think it might be better to enjoy the conversation and company and find the food unexceptional, rather than have great food but horrendous conversation and horrifying company. I do hope that at the next dinner you attend though, you find both.