Toro Bravo: Behind the Scenes at one of Portland’s Finest

Up until last week, I had somehow in my 4.5 years as a Portland food blogger not yet made it to Toro Bravo, one of Portland’s most notable dining establishments. In all fairness, I had made two prior attempts and with a two hour wait time, I had decided on other options so as not to risk getting my blood sugar too low and becoming a potentially unpleasant dining companion.

Several other bloggers/media folk and I had the fabulous opportunity last week to be taken on a tour by Chef Gorham of Toro Bravo behind the scenes, experience the new standing tapas bar and to be treated to an impeccable tasting menu and pairing. After that, yes, I just might wait two hours to come back…as long as I have a snack right before.

Photo Feb 25, 5 37 33 PM
Portland Gin & Tonic: Aria gin, house tonic, lime shrub, hibiscus berries

Upon arrival, we were greeted with this fresh and delicious Aria gin and tonic to compliment some unique tapas.

The first of the tapas were “Spanish Kisses” in which the olives undergo some molecular gastronomy to be turned into mini balloons that pop and burst with the briny olive flavour once they touch your tongue.

Manchego pillows with jamon, caviaroli piment d'espelette
Manchego pillows with jamon, caviaroli piment d’espelette

Absolutely delicious. Such unique and scrumptious tapas, perhaps even the best I’ve ever had. Yes, I said that.

After sampling the tapas, Chef John Gorham guided us downstairs to see where all the magic is made- not just for Toro Bravo but also for his other restaurants, Tasty n Sons, Tasty n Alder and Mediterranean Exploration Company. And as one would expect, there was a whole lotta meaty action down there.

I’ve gotta say, I definitely gain a further appreciation for the dining experiences I have when I get to see all the behind-the-scenes work that goes into it whether it be learning about the experiences the chef(s) had which inspired a certain dish or method of cooking or getting to watch all the cool kitchen gadgets they’ve got in action.

After the grand tour, it was time for dinner…little did any of us know just how much of a treat we were in for.

 So much deliciousness; everything was so impeccable that I can’t even designate which dishes were my favourites. The Charcuterie Board at Toro Bravo is impressive, not your typical couple slabs of meat and bread deal but a generous arrangement of specialties such as rich and creamy duck liver mousse terrine and dates stuffed with foie gras. Definitely cool to know that a lot of those meats were cured just downstairs!

Then there were the clams, I for one am admittedly not a huge fan of clams as the texture kind of irks me. However, if you ask any of my tablemates, I was practically licking this bowl clean thanks to its rich, tangy tomato sauce. Another big standout was the Canelone Catalan, perhaps due to the fact that it contained a bunch of my favourite ingredients (lots of cheese, black truffle and chicken). Definitely the creme de la creme of comfort foods.

And, don’t think Chef John Gorham let us leave his establishment without dessert. Funny enough, while on the tour downstairs, pastry chef extraordinaire Carrie Merrill (formerly of Urban Farmer and Departure) and I mutually recognised each other from Instagram. Sure enough, she is now the Pastry Chef for the Brave Bulls and was debuting her first dessert at Toro Bravo to us.

Carrie's blood orange olive oil cake with spiced chocolate cremeaux and olive oil ice cream
Carrie’s blood orange olive oil cake with spiced chocolate cremeaux and olive oil ice cream

As was expected, Carrie’s dessert was impeccable and an appropriate finale to such a splendid supper. If you’ve ever tried a dessert at Departure or Urban Farmer in the past couple of years, chances are Carrie concocted it and that it was beyond delicious. This olive oil cake was light and sumptious and beautifully complimented with some hidden blood orange, a dollop of olive oil ice cream and an accent of chocolate. So stoked to see what else Carrie is going to be bringing to the table in the coming months!

Alright folks, well if the above food porn hasn’t tempted you to try Toro Bravo then I’m not sure I could trust your taste buds. Check out their mouthwatering tapas menu and head on over to this NE Portland gastronomical landmark for your next date, birthday, girl’s night or supper out on the town.

A humongous thank you to Chef John Gorham, the fantastic staff at Toro Bravo, and the lovely ladies of Little Green Pickle for hosting such a wonderful Wednesday night at one of PDX’s finest.

Portland Food Adventure at Mediterranean Exploration Company: A Sneak Peek

If you  consider yourself a Portland “foodie” and haven’t heard of Mediterranean Exploration Company, then you’re obviously slacking on your Eater PDX feed.

Regardless, the keywords about MEC that you need to know to get the gist: John Gorham, The Revolving Door of Restaurants on NW 13th and Flanders, and Greek potatoes. John Gorham, the culinary sheikh behind Tasty n Sons, Tasty n Alder and Toro Bravo recently took over the former Riffle space; painted the walls an extremely favourableTiffany turquoise (aka The Nines Hotel’s signature hue) and revamped it into a clean, industrial chic restaurant peppered with a street sign in Hebrew here and there.

True to it’s name, MEC’s menu is a blend of locavore bounty fused into traditional Mediterranean dishes (mostly focusing on the Jewish side of Middle Eastern cuisine). If you’ve tried any of Gorham’s other restaurants you will see some crossover in terms of ingredients and style- for instance MEC has it’s own rendition of radicchio salad (there’s a mean one at the two Tasty’s if you didn’t know).

Since I accidentally slept through the MEC Preview Party a couple of Sundays back and suffered the subsequent Instagram-induced FOMO, I decided to attend the Portland Food Adventures dinner last Wednesday to get a taste of the Pearl District’s newest destination. The menu, as has been the case with each PFA I’ve attended was far from skimpy:

Mediterranean Exploration Company's Menu for the Portland Food Adventures Dinner
Mediterranean Exploration Company’s Menu for the Portland Food Adventures Dinner

Upon entry, I was greeted with a refreshing Moroccan Spritz craft cocktail, a plate of olives and some scrumptious fried tomato fritters. Forgive me for prioritising my hunger levels over getting a photo of the fritter- just envision an ambiguously shaped fried tidbit.

Moroccan Spritz Cocktail with Olives

As I’ve mentioned previously, my mother is Saudi-Palestinian and I grew up a decent portion of my life in Dubai. As a result of this upbringing, I’m incredibly discriminating on what I consider to be stellar Middle Eastern food. The term ‘Middle Eastern food’ itself is rather vague anyhow as it encompasses a plethora of different sub-cultures and their regional cuisine; much which is unbeknownst to most Western palates. Besides, Middle Eastern cuisine is often categorized as Mediterranean cuisine (particularly Greek)- and while there are some similarities in ingredients and structure within a meal; they are quite different when done authentically. Plus, “Mediterranean Cuisine,” in it of itself has just as much variety.

From my understanding, Gorham isn’t necessarily trying to make MEC into a 100% accurate emulation of Eastern Mediterranean cuisine but to rather inspire local bounty with those flavors and combine them with a few of the traditional staples. For instance topping hummus with a lamb ragu- a play on the traditional lamb or chicken shawarma topping.

In the first set of courses, we got to sample a variety of dishes that I would compare to Mezze (small typically vegan/vegetarian dips and bites that make up an appetiser course):

 From the initial courses, my favourites were the fried cauliflower with labneh and the radicchio salad (because I’m a sucker for radicchio salads as my neverending love affair with the Nostrana salad can confirm). The Vered Hagalil salad was a fresh and welcome component considering it was a hot summer day, however I found it to be a little bland- perhaps a little bit more acidity and seasoning would put it right on the money. I’d also say the same about the trio of dips and pita- the textures were on-point; the pita full of the right amount of stretchy chewy doughy bliss and the dips just the right amount of chunky. The only thing was the bread could have used a bit more salt and the dips, a little more seasoning and oomph.

If you’re a fan of seafood, then you will love the offerings at MEC. I’m a relatively new fan of seafood (and still a slightly hesitant one). I admit I’ve never eaten something with it’s head attached and I also tend to avoid octopus or anything else that I might have to chew a few seconds too long. The calamari however was great! Lightly fried, not fishy in the least and fabulously balanced with the acidity of the ouzo, lemon and tomato sauce. The Chreime (Tripolitany Jewish Fish Stew) was also a pleasant surprise- I initially expected some sort of soup full of various ambiguous sea creatures but instead I got a generous portion of lean white fish dunked in what seemed to be a harissa type of sauce.

Being the carnivore I was born to be, the final set of savory courses was my favourite. And a huge part of it may surprisingly have been due to the potatoes- scrumptious Greekified steak frites roasted in a melange of spices. The lamb chops were also beautifully seasoned- and in some of my favourite flavours- oregano, garlic and lemon. As for the lamb ragu and hummus- I wanted to be impressed and being the hummus and meat fiend I am, I had been looking forward to this course. However, I do admit I found the hummus to be a little underwhelming, I’d like to go back and taste it again without the background noise of all the prior courses, but I found the texture to be a bit stiff and lacking the creamy viscous-ness that I associate with the world’s favourite chickpea dip.

Dessert however…

Rose Water Panna Cotta with pistachio caramel and accompanied by Marco di Bartolia Marsala Superiore
Rose Water Panna Cotta with pistachio caramel and accompanied by Marco di Bartolia Marsala Superiore

Yes! This dessert course was a winner; light and guilt-less and a harmonious way to pair rosewater and pistachios. Along with dessert, per the usual PFA protocol each guest was presented with an envelope of goodies; goodies in the form of giftcards to three of Gorham’s favourite establishments. And really, I couldn’t be more excited about the selection we received:

1) A $20 Dining Certificate to Ringside Steakhouse (or Fish House)

2) A $10 Gift Card to Måurice; an adorable new lunch and gourmet dessert cafe

3) A $20 Gift Certificate to Serratto

Really, if you’re looking for an evening out on the town savouring the bounty of Portland’s best chefs in the company of other food-admirers, then attending a Portland Food Adventure is the way to go. You get a lengthy tasting menu with drink pairings and $50 worth of gift certificates so you can go and find another new favourite place. This particular PFA was priced at $125 and you can see which other ones are on the docket for the next couple of months so that you can plan out your next date night right at this link!

A huge thanks to Chef John Gorham and his lovely wife, Renee for hosting this delectable event and I look forward to trying MEC again in the near future. They will be open limited hours Wednesday-Sunday from 5:30-10 PM on a walk-in basis from July 16th-July 31st and will begin taking reservations on August 1st!