Toro Toro: a steakhouse where you shouldn’t order the steak

Not so long ago, if you found yourself at a Washington steakhouse — take your pick — you could predict the occasion would center on a slab of beef (and good luck to anyone ordering the lone fish entree). As tastes have evolved, however, so have the purveyors of grilled meat. Many of them have adapted to the times with edible amenities that go beyond the expected.

Downtown’s Latin American ode to smoke and innards, Del Campo, diversifies its meaty menu with schools of great seafood dishes and one of the best Peruvian chickens for miles. Less than a year after it opened on Capitol Hill, Bearnaise, the steak frites specialist, expanded its list to include, among other non-steak options, a crackling duck confit like that you’d find in Paris. A recent import from Miami Beach, Joe’s Seafood, Prime Steak & Stone Crab on 15th Street NW reveals in its epic name alone how far consumers have stepped outside the cave.

The “new” steakhouse is treating meat as an accompaniment rather than a centerpiece, and chops and filets often share equal billing with ingredients from sea and sky.

Enter Toro Toro. It’s a vast, pan-Latin steakhouse from Richard Sandoval, the New York-based chef whose food concepts in Washington span the Latin-Asian Zengo and Masa 14, the Mexican-flavored El Centro D.F. and the Balkan-inspired Ambar. Toro Toro combines the Japanese word for tuna and the Spanish one for bull.

My point exactly.

Hugged in a forest of dark wood and set off with antelope skulls, the expansive street-level dining room tilts masculine, even slightly sinister; the black metal bars near the entrance bring to mind a cage. Orange napkins and the glow of an underground bar help light the dim interior.

Nearly 30 “shared plates” — hot and cold appetizers — dominate the menu and suggest an ambitious kitchen. Easy to finish: smoked swordfish dip, a riff on chips and dip that finds pickled chilies in the creamy spread and long, fried plantains for scooping. Causo Toro Toro brings totems of mashed potato, each topped with spicy minced tuna tartare and a curl of creamy avocado. The heat of the fish, spiked with chili paste, lingers for minutes.

If it involves a crust, a dish is apt to satisfy. Evidence awaits in the crisp empanadas, both the beef-filled pastries and the hot pockets with sweet corn and mozzarella, and the tawny croquettes with molten cores of Emmental cheese and ham. The pleasantly chewy arepas with minced seafood pack a lot of pleasure into a snack the size of a button. Steer clear, though, of the slick chicken wings; their vague gloss not worth the cost of laundering a napkin.

Several of the shared plates are closer to entrees in size. They include cachapas, shredded duck on tender corn pancakes, and chaufa, fried rice mixed with bites of sausage, shredded egg and cool bean sprouts. Chaufa, flavored with oyster sauce, is a legacy of Chinese immigrants in Peru, where the dish remains so popular that restaurants specialize in it. Of the meatless options, the flatbread scattered with wild mushrooms, peppery arugula and goat cheese is a crowd-pleaser that whispers of truffle oil. Toro Toro’s bountiful chopped salad combines fava beans, chayote, fresh white cheese, roasted corn and a tomato vinaigrette. Hold the crumbled bacon, and you’ve got a vegetarian smash.

If everyone at the table signs on, the eat-all-you-want rodizio promises lots of meat and value. Anyone who has attended a traditional Brazilian meat-a-thon, or churrascaria, will be familiar with the scene of servers bearing swords of meat, carved at the table, and waiters showing up with more as long as you keep a green card near your plate. Need a break? Flip the card to display its red side, a signal to the staff that you want a pause in the action. The experience is priced at $79 a head and allows you to order as many of the appetizers as you want.

The feast, cooked over a gas grill, comes with a major catch: The meat on those swords isn’t prime eating. The chorizo is dry, lamb is stuck on mute and tongue tastes like leftover roast beef. The parade of cooked flesh begins with chicken; call me skeptical for thinking it’s because chicken is cheap, compared with some of the other cuts, and the restaurant would prefer we fill up on it. Even so, chicken is the only protein any of us bothers asking for more of; cumin, oregano and miso give the bird heft.

I would have sworn off the meat altogether if I hadn’t ordered the smoky veal porterhouse on a return engagement. The cut, seasoned with what the kitchen calls “charcoal oil” and fresh herbs, swells with flavor. A side of cubed sweet potatoes, rich with butter and tingling with chipotle, turned the main course into more of a meal.

While surf tends to trump turf, just because a dish comes from the water doesn’t mean it rocks. Scallops and squid are wasted on the soupy arroz con mariscos, which is so salty it tastes as if the rice had been cooked in seawater.

Lunch lures worker bees with a $28 buffet that manages the trick of being abundant and enticing. In addition to four meats that change from day to day, patrons can fill up on herbed turkey salad, nutty wild rice sweetened with grapes and simply poached shrimp, among the dozen-plus choices.

Toro Toro’s not-so-small plates have
a way of filling you up before the subject
of dessert is broached. That’s a good thing, based on the sweets I’ve sampled. The silliest dessert is a deconstructed Key
lime pie, the flavors of which are represented on a big white plate by drips and drabs and sails of ingredients. The assembly looks to be the work of a kindergarten class set loose in a pastry kitchen. If there’s a trend that needs to be retired, it’s one that requires diners to assemble dishes. Isn’t that what cooks get paid to do?

Toro Toro is intended to be a celebration of meat. But diners would be better off making a party of fish or fowl.

1.5 stars

Location: 1300 I St. NW. 202-682-9500. richardsandoval.com/torotorodc.

Open: Lunch 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday; dinner 5 to 11 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 5 p.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday.

Prices: Dinner appetizers $9 to $14, steaks and other specialties $33 to $65.

Sound check: 74 decibels/Must speak with raised voice.

THE SCOOP

Location: 1300 I St. NW.
202-682-9500. richardsandoval.com/torotorodc.

Open: Lunch 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday; dinner
5 to 11 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 5 p.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday.

Prices: Dinner appetizers $9
to $14, steaks and other specialties $33 to $65.

Sound check: 74 decibels/
Must speak with raised voice.

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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