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Multiple Choices

By Phyllis C. Richman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 14, 1999

  Richman Review

Turning Tables
Boston-Washington air traffic is bound to get busier this fall. Todd English, one of Boston's most famous chefs, is planning to install a branch of his Olives restaurant in a two-story space at 16th and K streets NW around October. In between English's visits, it will be run by the sous-chef from English's Las Vegas outpost. As the chef describes his rustic Mediterranean American cooking, "It's of the countryside but refined."
– P.C.R.
What a country! In most parts of the world, people eat pretty much the same thing day after day. But here we don't have to walk more than a few steps to choose from Thai or Italian cooking, beer brewed in-house or wine imported from Australia, raw fish or cooked ostrich, a small meal for under $10 or a major culinary event. And that's not even downtown, but in the suburbs, at the Village at Shirlington.

After seeing your choice of seven movies in Shirlington's multiplex theater, you have an even greater number of possibilities among restaurants on a single block: Japanese, Thai, Middle Eastern, Chinese and either modern or traditional American, for a start. That sounds like a sufficient array for an evening's entertainment, but there's more. One restaurant alone, Toro Tapas & Grill, offers more than 50 appetizers.

No wonder the crowds from the cinema often empty right into the line for tables at Toro Tapas. It feeds our need for endless options. A pack of teenagers can snack for a mere $5 each. A group of friends with mixed tastes and appetites can all satisfy their cravings – for just a salad, for meat-and-potatoes or for something never before encountered – all at one table. An intimate twosome can readily share an entree paella or a clutch of small appetizer-size tapas. And if you like the first round of dishes you've ordered, you can summon more as quickly as your waiter can dash to the kitchen and back.

Toro Tapas is a long stretch of a restaurant that wraps its glass walls around a corner of the block. Despite its Spanish murals of a bullfighter and a flamenco dancer, it has the bright, laminated look of an American deli. Its rapid, matter-of-fact service, too, would be as suited to burgers and Cokes as to empanadillas and sangria. Although on a quiet night the waiter might take the trouble to make suggestions and pace your dishes, on a busy Saturday the waiters are here to complete a job, not develop a relationship. Ours forgot to bring some of our dishes, and after we found him and asked that he belatedly fetch the rest, he evened the score by neglecting to add them to the bill.

The original Spanish concept of tapas was bar food. You pointed to what you wanted among the platters on the bar, and nibbled your choices as accompaniments to sherry. Toro Tapas seems to operate in much the same way, but the choices are ordered from a menu rather than from a counterful of dishes. Nevertheless, the hot dishes generally come lukewarm, as if they were out on display somewhere beyond your view.

For some foods, that works fine. Tortilla con mariscos is that classic thick Spanish omelet like a potato cake, in this case with shrimp as well. It's meant to be served at room temperature, in wedges, and here is as delicate and satisfying as it should be. The flavor of marinated mushrooms – whole buttons in herbed oil – blooms at room temperature. Even fried fish, small butterflied fillets in a crisp flour coating, is delicious without being hot from the fryer. Fried potatoes are wonderful, too, well browned and smothered in a garlicky house-made mayonnaise and pepper sauce like a warm potato salad. And a timbale of paella, bright yellow with a vivid layer of roasted red peppers, is steamy and fragrant from seafood and its stock. The tapas-size paella is so good, I'd be tempted to order the entree size next time.

But meats suffer from being left to cool. Thinly sliced marinated lamb chops, grilled until they are crunchy, and half buried in garlicky mashed potatoes, work because they are thoroughly trimmed of their fat. But the mashed potatoes have become slightly sticky. Lamb on skewers not only is chewier, but tastes greasy, and its brown gravy is slightly congealed. So, too, the fragrant onion and sherry gravy on tender braised rabbit would be far more luscious if the dish were hot.

What's really frustrating is to find dishes that are overcooked as well as left to cool. Chicken is a waste of time here. Whether skewered and grilled or sauteed with garlic sauce, the meat is so chewy and dry that the seasoning doesn't matter. Shrimp wrapped in ham and deep-fried has a similar problem. Salmon might fare better if it were served hot from the grill, instead of left to leach out its juices and develop its fishier side.

Some of the Spanish classics seem tamed for a mass market. Empanadillas – fried, meat-filled turnovers – are pleasantly crisp, but their meat stuffing is bland. No olives, no raisins, no evidence of seasoning, though the accompanying sauce is jalapeno-fired. Croquetas of cod and shrimp taste mostly of gummy flour. Chorizo here is just one step spicier than bologna. Seviche needs a jalapeno kick – and juicier fish.

You could make do here with plates of cheese and ham, or a simple arrangement of artichoke hearts and diced bell peppers draped with smoked salmon. They're among the small list of cold tapas, along with an excessively mayonnaised potato salad, stuffed tomatoes or avocados and a few marinated salads.

Here's a place where I sorely miss good bread. These slightly crusty but flabby slices do a disservice to the sensational green olive paste that comes with them. The sangria might be considered a little flabby, too, by those who expect a more alcoholic intensity. To its great credit, though, it's not too sweet.

That leaves you more open to dessert, which is a fine idea at Toro Tapas. Chocolate is celebrated in a dark, fudgy cake with raspberries and in a white-chocolate cake layered with what tastes almost like a cream cheese frosting, also with raspberries. Ice cream and chocolate sauce, that universal favorite, appears in the form of profiteroles. More homey are the rice pudding, thick and creamy under a heavy sprinkling of cinnamon, and a flan that has a bubbly, coarse texture but tastes every bit as eggy and caramelized as the best.

Toro Tapas has all the intimacy of a bullfighting arena, but a background of Spanish music and a constant flow of dozens of little plates through the aisles clearly signal a fiesta.

Toro Tapas & Grill – 4053 S. 28th St., Arlington. 703/379-0502. Open: for lunch Monday through Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.; for dinner Monday through Thursday 4 to 11 p.m., Friday and Saturday 4 p.m. to midnight, Sunday 3 to 10 p.m.; for brunch Sunday 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. All major credit cards. Reservations accepted for six or more. Separate smoking area. Prices: lunch appetizers $3.25 to $6.95, entrees $6.95 to $16.95; dinner appetizers $3.25 to $9.95, entrees $11.95 to $19.95. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip $25 to $40 per person.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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