Tom Sietsema’s First Bite: At Toro Toro, surf beats turf


Chilean sea bass is a star at Toro Toro, outshining the steaks. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

Turf with a Latin slant is the theme at Richard Sandoval’s latest addition to the dining scene, Toro Toro. That’s where this carnivore recently sliced into a grilled rib-eye steak while facing (huh?) a wall of antelope skulls. But surf is what I’m filling up on — and enjoying immensely — in the prolific restaurateur’s beige-brown dining room across from Franklin Square on a recent spring night.

Ruby-colored cubes of raw tuna combine with soft bites of sweet potato and crisp quinoa to add up to a seviche of distinction. A slick of fiery cilantro sauce and a loose cake of corn and fingerling potatoes impress me as much as the rope of tender grilled octopus they accompany. Chewy, button-size arepas are topped with creamy seafood: minced prawns, scallops and calamari. The sleeper of the many small plates is a dip of smoked swordfish offered with crisp plantain chips for scooping. Going, going, gone.

Our bubbly server is quick to rate every dish we order (“one of my favorites!”) — behavior that would be annoying if the cooking didn’t live up to her enthusiasm. I bite when she advocates for a main course of Chilean sea bass (“the best I’ve ever tasted, and I’ve had a lot”) and I break into an appreciative smile when the silken fish shows up, fetchingly framed with mussels, shrimp and squid and delicious to boot. A turmeric-tinted broth is good to the last spoonful.

The nonperformers of the night? That $41 steak, which lacks beefy succulence, and a companion of dull creamed spinach topped with a stiff web of Parmesan.

Toro Toro wants to be known for its orgy of seven grilled meats, served until you cry “uncle,” and priced at $79 per person, side dishes included. A catch: The Brazilian-style feast has to be ordered by everyone at the table, and tonight, not everyone at the table is game.

Chances are good you know of Sandoval or the New York-based chef’s work around the District: Zengo, Masa 14, El Centro D.F. and Ambar are all his. For Toro Toro, he assigned Stephen Hartzell , 40, the former chef de cuisine at El Centro, to fill that role.

The music drifting from the orange glow of the basement comes from the restaurant’s lounge. Toro Toro is a smart space that would be more comfortable if the tables for two were large enough to accommodate even a standard order and the chairs had more-supportive backs.

I’ll type it again: Restaurants would be doing customers a huge favor if they auditioned more details before adding them to their menu. Furniture included.

1300 I St. NW. 202-682-9500. richardsandoval.com/torotorodc. Small plates, $8 to $16; grilled meats, $33 to $65.

Weaned on a beige buffet a la “Fargo” in Minnesota, Tom Sietsema is the food critic for The Washington Post. This is his second tour of duty at the Post. Sietsema got his first taste in the ‘80s, when he was hired by his predecessor to answer phones, write some, and test the bulk of the Food section’s recipes. That’s how he learned to clean squid, bake colonial cakes and distinguish between nutmeg and mace.
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