492 Elmwood Ave., Buffalo NY 14222
Web: !Toro! Tapas Bar
Rating: [learn more]
An attractively decorated, nicely staffed restaurant with dishes that span a variety of cooking styles and generally include at least one interesting accent ingredient. Overall food quality is good, with only few exceptions.
Not a true tapas restaurant in any sense of the word, as menu offers no small, inexpensive dishes and consists substantially of fusion fare rather than the traditional Spanish and Mediterranean cuisine one might reasonably expect. Pricey, with awkwardly sized portions.
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Buffalo Fusion Tapas
"If you can put aside your expectations, you'll find that Toro offers nice meals, but it merits rebranding: it's an upscale fusion restaurant with commensurate portions and prices."
Italian restaurants don't serve tacos. Barbecue joints don't serve steamed dumplings. And Spanish tapas restaurants don't serve Thai curry. That's why we were surprised to discover that Elmwood Avenue's !Toro! Tapas Bar - billed as "Buffalo's first tapas bar, featuring a wide variety of Mediterranean small plates" - doesn't serve much of anything that most tapas fans would recognize as fitting that description. For the unfamiliar, tapas is this; a series of typically $5-7 Spanish dishes that are ordered en masse, shared as snacks, and enjoyed with wine. At Toro, we instead saw "tapas" offerings that were really half-sized, expensive fusion entrees - a $16 "Spicy Penang Chicken Curry," $19 "Lobster Corn Dogs," and a $11 "Chicken Spring Roll," amongst them - numbers and words that may immediately make tapas purists recoil.
But should you? That depends, of course, on what you're looking for. We visited Toro in celebration of Local Restaurant Week, a time when the normal prices were moderated a little to drum up business, and found ourselves perusing a 21-item standard menu, a 10-item specials menu, and a nice wine list - one of the only things tapas fans might recognize as true to form. The truly few others would include the recently price-hiked, deep-fried Toro Calamari ($14), a Chorizo sausage Meatball ($12), and a $46 Paella, the latter a large dish of saffron rice, chicken, chorizo and seafood that is commonly found in Spanish restaurants, though it's not tapas, strictly speaking. Try to eat a Paella with two or three small dishes and you're all but guaranteed to have a stomachache; given the "medium" size of Toro's dishes, this would be a really bad idea.
We went in a different direction. After five or ten minutes canvassing the appetizer-less pages - a contrast with the more frequently entree-light menus of true tapas restaurants, which only sometimes offer larger "ration" portions of their tiny dishes - we decided to go with six plates that ranged from steak and pork to seafood and salad, a mix of items that were representative of the whole of the choices on offer. Our server, a friendly gentleman, was responsive, helpful, and always smiling, while the classy but once loud venue had been modified to reduce its ambient noise levels. Even if it's not really a tapas restaurant, Toro is surely a nice place to sit down for a meal; ours started with a fresh, sliced stack of bread and pesto that we found ourselves enjoying from start to finish.
The highlight of the night was the $16 "Tuna Package," a plate of wonderfully prepared, lightly seared Ahi tuna that had been encrusted with ground Japanese Panko crumbs, then placed atop an alternatingly sweet and spicy cherry and chipotle salsa. Of all the plates we ordered, this one was at once the most visually appealing, balanced in flavor, and similar to a real tapas plate in portion size: there were only two slices of fresh pink Ahi, both admittedly large and thick, ever so slightly warm on the outside and similarly just a little chilly in the center. One bite would crunch, the next would yield like thick jelly, and the modest heat was a wonderful contrast with the bed of cool green and red minced vegetables. Tapas it wasn't in pricing or flavor, but it was undeniably delicious.
We were fine, rather than impressed with the Baby Back Pork Ribs ($15), which had been described on the menu as rubbed with spiced coffee. Fatty and too few in number - five - for the price, the ribs tasted more of a very light sweet Chinese soy glaze than of coffee, which was only hinted at through the soft, somewhat sparing meat. Propping up the ribs was a pile of nice ancho chili rice that had been accented with fresh scallions; though we'd ordered with plans to eat only the ribs to leave room for other dishes, we found ourselves hungry enough to devour the rice down to the plate.
Only decent were the Toro Mussels ($12), a large bowl of black shells with relatively small bits of steamed mussel inside. They'd been sprinkled with similarly tiny nibbles of chorizo sausage and yukon gold potatoes, and laid to rest in a shallow layer of red pepper broth. With some disappointment, we noted that we've had considerably more plump, flavorful mussels as part of massive buffets that cost roughly as much as this plate; we found the dish to be far too much shell and too little meat for the price. Similar thoughts ran through our head regarding the Toro Salad ($10), a small plate of mixed field greens with sprinklings of roasted pine nuts and red onion slices, small pieces of tomato, cucumbers, and a lightly creamy dressing. Had these two dishes not been discounted as parts of Local Restaurant Week's $20.09 special offer, they'd never have seemed worthy of their normal asking prices.
Apart from their small size, we were generally pleased with the Grilled Petit Filets ($22), roughly three ounces of beef that had been sliced into two miniature chunks, cooked roughly to medium without a request for our preference, then laid alongside a pool of orange gravy. This sauce was like a creamy yellow Thai curry, only containing small pieces of chorizo sausage and enveloping a more substantial mix of hand cut fries, roasted red peppers, and green beans. Though the gravy made the fries too soggy, and the chorizo wasn't a powerful enough addition, the sauce still managed to enhance the flavor of the veggies and serve as a good accent for the steak. We'd call this dish a strong second to the Ahi Tuna.
It was harder to know what to make of another of the items, Pan Seared Sea Scallops ($19) that we had originally intended to share. Confronted with a medium-sized bowl seemingly filled only with thin, warm rice noodles, carrots, green peppers and scallions, the second of us rummaged through the noodles looking for seafood to taste. "How many scallops did you eat?" "Three. Why, aren't there any left?" "No." "Sorry! But they were pretty good." Like the mussels, the residue left in the bowl was soaking in a broth, here a light and modestly spicy soy ginger, which did just enough to make the balance of the dish worth finishing. Had someone relied upon this bowl for their meal, they would have left hungry and disappointed; many tapas places would serve three scallops for a third of the price.
From six hand-written dessert options - all from Dessert Deli, we were told - we asked our server to pick the best. He recommended the Celtic Cheesecake ($6), billed on the card as "Bailey's Cheesecake" based on its Irish whiskey cream base; like virtually everything we've had at Dessert Deli, we enjoyed it. The Bailey's flavor thankfully wasn't subtle, though it was dampened a little by strong, arguably unnecessary chocolate in the crust and top. It would have been great without this addition, but between it and the little green shamrock candy that sat on top, the Celtic Cheesecake would appeal on looks, concept, or flavor to virtually anyone.
Overall, we felt that our meal at Toro was deserving of two and a half stars: judged solely on the quality of the food, the service, and the venue, the place might have merited a full three, but the dishes we tried all suffered from common issues - they were unquestionably too expensive given the portion sizes, and had little to no place on a tapas menu. Whether this is attributable to a change in focus or a misunderstanding of tapas as a concept, those who come to this place expecting to find Spanish or Meditteranean fare will find too little, while those who arrive hoping for a meal of small plates will instead discover dishes that contain and cost too much. If you can put aside your expectations, you'll find that Toro offers nice meals, but it merits rebranding to let people know what it really is: an upscale fusion restaurant with commensurate portions and prices.