Choosing WW's Restaurant of the Year is rarely easy. Picture a meeting of our hyper-opinionated editors and food critics, each with his or her own favorites, horror stories and personal sense of the drift of Portland's trends. Imagine them trying to agree on one restaurant that stands out—not just for extraordinary food, but for a welcoming atmosphere, great buzz and, most important, a sense of expanding the boundaries of our city's culinary culture. As they say on TV, hilarity ensues.
Then there was this year. The dreaded meeting took place. Somebody said Toro Bravo. A collective "duh" arose. And it was good, and we were happy. Just like the diners who have been crowding the sparkling, Spanish-inspired tapas bar in Northeast Portland since it opened in May 2007. Very, very happy.
Toro Bravo, a simple box of a dining hall with sangria-hued walls, is turning out vividly flavored food in living color: bright green pimientos de padrón, gently spicy little Spanish peppers, fried crisp; toasted bread topped with marinated white anchovies reclining on a bed of bright red piperade, the essence of red-pepperness; cold honeydew melon soup, pale green, drizzled with the grassy yellow-green of peppery olive oil, sprinkled with salt and centered with an ivory scoop of lemon-verbena ice cream.
In a town where chefs whine if new restaurants don't get a review-free grace period (three months is often suggested, although patrons aren't offered a similar immunization from paying the check), Toro Bravo sprang out of the blocks with terrific food. Credit the success to the experience of chef-owner John Gorham—he's the linebacker with the graying goatee you'll see in the kitchen—and his wife, Courtney Wilson-Gorham, a seasoned front-of-the-house manager. "I just want to give people the food they get at high-end restaurants done right and done affordably," says Gorham, at 34 already the veteran of almost two decades of professional cooking.
He's not kidding: Two can eat well here for $50. Bread with butter and good olive oil costs $1, and most dishes set you back less than $10. An abundant panful of paella, plenty to share, runs $18. Add to that a smart wine list with Northwest and Spanish bottles at a modest double-wholesale markup, and a bar with a carefully edited choice of fine spirits. And then there's the jolly, efficient crew of servers who seem to revel in the crowds and the noise (which is considerable—bring your earplugs). All in all, Toro Bravo is a restaurant that makes people laugh, put their arms around their friends and kiss their lovers.
Since a savvy opening with a limited menu, Gorham has expanded the offerings to about 50 dishes. Watching the red-shirted cooks handle all that on the compact line makes sitting at the kitchen-side bar one of the best shows around. What diners don't see—but certainly taste, whether they're aware of it or not—is how much technique and time goes into making each apparently simple dish.
Just about everything served is made in-house. Take a Spanish classic—salt-cod fritters: walnut-sized mouthfuls with a crackling golden crust surrounding a silky puree of salt cod, potato, milk, eggs and parsley, served with a roundly garlicky aioli. Toro Bravo's probably the only restaurant in town that makes its own salt cod from fresh fish, rather than buying the easily available prepared version. "I just don't like the flavor of commercial salt cod," says the chef. He also churns his own butter from fresh buttermilk and cream for the green beans with tarragon butter, and makes alchemical magic with aromatic rose-petal harissa (a North African-inflected hot pepper paste) served with fresh sheep's cheese.
Or consider the coppa steak, an obscure "secondary cut" of beef from the very top of the chuck at the neck. Where most chefs see something that, at best, would be braised or stewed, Gorham—a wizard with meat who owned City Market's Viande butcher shop/charcuterie and founded Simpatica, Portland's palace of pork—sees a potentially great piece of meat he can sell for just $12. He starts by cold-smoking the coppa steaks with hickory, then salts and peppers them and lets them dry-age under the fan in the walk-in fridge for five days. To serve, each steak gets a righteous sear on the charbroiler and then roasts to perfect medium-rare in the oven.
"Then we let them rest for 20 to 30 minutes before serving," Gorham explains. "That's essential." The tender, crisp-edged coppa comes to the table with a traditional Catalan sauce called salbitxada , a spicy-creamy-piquant concoction of grilled onions, almonds, garlic, red wine vinegar, olive oil and arbol chiles toasted until they just start to scorch. The result: a piece of meat at least as satisfying—and far more interesting—than many steakhouse cuts at triple the price.
Gorham, who grew up in the mid-Atlantic and maritime Southeast, has a globe-trotting résumé that includes running kitchens at high-volume resorts and country clubs, opening an Indonesian restaurant in West Africa, and cooking at several hot restaurants in the San Francisco area. Yet for his most enduring inspiration, he credits four years in the late '90s at Zenon in Eugene, Ore., during the restaurant's heyday when chef Bill Hatch was the owner. "Every single thing we served was made from scratch," Gorham recalls. "Ice creams, bread. The farmers were at our back door every day. We got whole pigs, whole lambs. We composted and recycled. It was an incredibly talented crew, and the food was fantastic, all because of Bill and the way he ran the restaurant."
Late last year, after a torrent of good press for Simpatica was capped off by USA Today' s food critic calling his meal there the best he'd had—worldwide—in 2006, Gorham knew that it was time to start the restaurant of his dreams. He sold his share of Simpatica to his partners, and he and Courtney headed for Spain for some serious research. "I always liked Spanish food, and I thought that there was a void here for tapas and paella," he explains. And Spanish-style small plates meshed with the couple's own preferred way of eating out. "When we go out with our friends, we don't order entrees, we order starters," he says. "It's a fun way to eat, with a nice communal vibe."
Being a meat maven doesn't stop Gorham from gleaning the best seasonal produce. Grilled corn on the cob oozing with emerald-green cilantro pesto; harissa-stewed summer squash with crumbled, aged sheep's cheese; sautéed beet greens topped with a sunny-side-up farm egg; berries baked in a light, clafouti-like batter, served with sour cream ice cream—all made appearances on the summer menu. Toro Bravo's garlic-and-tomato-rubbed bread, a touchstone of Catalan cooking, was better than any version I tried in Barcelona, probably because the tomatoes were tastier, though that dish will disappear as tomatoes go out of season.
The thick slice of tomato will disappear from the remarkable hamburger as well, but the hamburger itself will remain, and a good thing, too. Gorham grinds Cascade Natural chuck, griddles the burger for a good, crunchy bite, piles on his own bacon and bread-and-butter pickles and, for a Spanish twist, tops it with manchego cheese and romesco sauce. On a Grand Central brioche bun, it's a juicy thrill that may guarantee Toro Bravo's place in Portland restaurant history.
As Gorham rides the wave, he's thinking about the next step: transforming the big vacant lot just west of the restaurant into an inner-city oasis for warm-weather dining, with a wood-fired grill for traditional paella-making. In the meantime, the wide range of diners crowding Toro Bravo is living proof that the vitality in the city's restaurant scene isn't found in multimillion-dollar build-outs and $37 veal chops. With a lifetime of hard-earned technique, respect for his ingredients, confidence in his own palate and generosity toward his customers, John Gorham's Toro Bravo is making a lot of Portlanders happy. Very, very happy.