The country of Spain is a magical place where east meets west in a clash of flamenco and flavor. Flavor that you don’t have to pay an arm and a leg to experience, because in 2007 Portland was introduced to the Spanish-inspired tapas restaurant Toro Bravo. Portland rejoiced, and in a flash Toro Bravo became one of the largest and brightest feathers in owner and executive chef John Gorham’s hat.
Toro Bravo is just one of Gorham’s restaurants. His popular brunch spot Tasty n Sons, which we profiled in April, rounds out a stable of five established Portland eateries and event spaces. When Gorham opened Toro Bravo, he addressed a need that he didn’t know Portland had.
For many years the Spanish food scene in Portland had languished under a catchall form of tapas. Call it “trendy tapas.” Restaurants would churn out small bites and slap the word tapas on their menu in the hopes that they could catch the wave. In most cases hapless Portlanders, not used to the real thing, quite literally consumed the narrative.
Meanwhile, Gorham was sharpening his knives at Viande Meats and opening the Simpatica Dining Hall. After earning rave reviews for his Spanish dinners at Simpatica, Gorham decided to take it to the next level and jet off to Spain. While amassing a treasure trove of recipes and ideas, he put together a vision to properly highlight the depth and beauty of Spanish cuisine back home in Portland.
Then, like its namesake, Toro Bravo – meaning the brave bull – burst onto the scene in a flash of bright color and great taste. Judging by the critical acclaim and large crowds, Portland has welcomed the bull with open arms and hungry stomachs.
Situated in a classic turn-of-the-century building in northeast Portland, Toro Brovo is a simple, yet refined space. The ceilings are tall and the wall of large windows gives the room an inviting airiness. The minimalist décor combines dark red and orange walls, and soft lights transport you straight to the Spanish coast.
Authentic wood plank tables and dark wood floors offer the feel of a true Spanish tapas house. Small touches are remembered and no two details are left out. A fully stocked bookshelf greets you as you enter. Strategically placed art and mirrors usher you through a journey into Spain’s ambassador to Portland.
Toro Bravo’s cuisine covers almost every region of Spain, from the fragrant spices of Catalonia to the mountains and seas of the Basque region. Even so, these dishes are more Spanish-inspired than truly traditional. Gorham puts his own unique spin on already delicious fare.
Although the menu rotates items on and off depending on the season, there are four easily divided sections: pinchos, tapas, paellas, and desserts. The exotic combines with the well-known to make for an eventful evening.
The menu starts with pinches, translated as “little bites.” You may begin with something simple, like a bowl of salted almonds, or dive in head first with brandy soaked prunes stuffed with foie gras. It’s an unexpected combination that is both creamy and slightly sweet; a Spanish amuse bouche, if you will.
Perhaps you’ll delight in the decadent slice of rich chicken liver mousse, delivered with warm pieces of soft bread and crostini. The mousse’s creamy texture is complimented by a soft note of sherry. A small pile of homemade pickled vegetables completes the flavor profile with ease.
Let the vegetarian in you delight in the Harissa stewed butternut squash with crumbled sheep’s cheese. It’s a dish that combines sweet, salt, and smoke to perfection. Your taste buds will delight in the perfect balance of flavor.
The classic tapas section packs the biggest flavors into the smallest bites. The brilliantly simple seared scallops with a Castilian romesco leaves your palate asking for more. The scallops are cooked perfectly and the sauce is delightful. In other seasons you might find the scallops resting in a white fennel sauce instead, itself a worthy supplement.
There simply isn’t enough time or space to go over every offering. From the succulent skewer of kebobs slathered in cumin paste to the fresh marinated anchovies served with thin slices of crostini, you’ll need multiple nights out to even dent the selection.
Finish the night with a traditional Spanish dessert. Toro Bravo takes a simple, underestimated churro and elevates it with fluted dough that’s crunchy and mildly sweet, but not oily. The bittersweet cup of chocolate sitting next to it begs for a dipping.
Of all of the world’s most underappreciated cuisines, Spanish may be one of the most notable. Spanish food celebrates fresh ingredients built into quality dishes. Rustic and simply prepared, Toro Bravo ably delivers the food of an enchanting land to northeast Portland.
To taste the flavors of Spain without the expensive travel arrangements, visit Toro Bravo at 120 NE Russell St, Portland, Oregon, 97212. They are open
William Bessette – PortlandMetroLive.com Contributor
William Bessette is an author, journalist and blogger who’s been writing professionally for over eleven years. When he isn’t writing or eating, then writing about eating, expect him to be outside enjoying the natural splendors of his home in the great Pacific Northwest.