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In the opening scene of Battlestar Galactica, a striking blonde wearing red (she’s actually a robot named “Model Six”) enters a space station. She saunters up to a man sitting at a desk, leans in real close, and asks, all sultry-like: “Are you alive?” Shaking, he answers yes. “Prove it,” she says, and goes in for one of the more sensual robot kisses in television history. Then her friends blow the place to smithereens.
I often remember this scene — Six’s voice: “Are you alive?” — in places with all the spirit of a goldfish floating limply in its bowl, or when I’m with likewise clammy people.
But on a recent Saturday at Toro, the new tapas restaurant from Beantown impresarios Ken Oringer and Jamie Bissonnette, Six came to me halfway through dinner. I looked around and realized I hadn’t been in a restaurant that felt so completely alive in many moons.
The dining room quivers with the electricity of a place where life is happening. Via phone, Oringer says he’s after the energy of Barcelona, but the space reads Chelsea, 2013: sleek, high-ceilinged, a bit raw, and packed with a horde of downtown sophisticates.
But it also radiates the convivial spark that defines dinner on Las Ramblas. Ask a bartender about the spice in your sangria ($12). She’ll say it’s nutmeg, then ask, “Do you like that?” as if she’d gladly change it if you didn’t. But I could drink myself into a Dionysian coma on the stuff, it’s so good.
And Oringer says Barcelona’s lawless approach to tapas informs the menu. “There are no rules, but you can still have something kind of entrenched in Spanish culture,” he says, “so it can be modern and traditional.”
This frees the kitchen to mix and match: to sauté, say, market-fresh cauliflower and kohlrabi ($12) with kimchi, raisins, pine nuts, and anchovy—ingredients more familiar to Asia, Italy, France, and the Middle East than to Spanish comida tipica. It’s a layered, nuanced dish. “I don’t know if I could figure this out,” says a friend who’s an ambitious cook.
Roasted marrowbones ($16), served with braised beef cheek on toast, are similarly mysterious. These underwhelmed my friends, but I have a feeling they blew the ratio: Spoon a glob of marrow over the beef, let it seep through the bread; the proper portion is 1:1:1, bone, beef, toast. Top it off with mixed citrus and radish, which cut through the fat like a hot knife. It’s a fascinating, dynamic dish.
Other plates show more restraint. Nantucket Bay scallops ($15) sing simple harmony with pomegranate and smoky Urfa chili, and fried shishito peppers ($8) are naked but for a touch of salt. Twirl one in ham if you want to dress it up; there are several fine cures to choose from.
So try a few: Serrano de Fermin ($17) is a deep, smoky red; La Quercia ($16), cut from acorn-fed Iowa hogs, flushes pink. Wrap them around deviled eggs ($7), like mom’s but for a sliver of yellowfin conserva, for next-level ham and eggs.
If Oringer and Bissonnette are deft with protein, they approach vegetables with a brusque innovation most herbivores wouldn’t dream of: If a pile of heirloom carrots ($12) looks blackened, it’s because they’re smoke-roasted in hay. With harissa and daubs of dilled buttermilk, they’re a happy mess on the plate, and a near-perfect mushroom sauté ($16) with a lusty yellow egg yolk is so good we almost ordered another. Actually, no — the mushrooms are perfect, the best dish I ate. They far surpass more glamorous plates like a too-charred truffled lobster paella ($45/$90), a just-meh grilled octopus ($16), or a sea urchin bocadillo ($13) that resembles overwrought grilled cheese.
But with more than 60 dishes on the menu, we’ll allow a few flops. Also, the staff will graciously take something back if you don’t like it, so order a lot; let the plates come in waves, a few at a time, if you can afford it. Doing so can’t help but feel festive, and service is quick. On a busy Saturday, four of us were in and out in well under two hours.
Though when the last plate arrives, it feels like the last present on Christmas. Toro’s tapas are fleeting like that: They come fast, explode in your mouth, and are gone in a few bites. Thankfully, you can always order more.
So stick around for dessert. Find out what a “Deconstructed Caramel Apple” ($8) is all about (hint: It involves chiffon-smooth buttered yogurt mousse, salted caramel, and crisp apple sticks), and give yourself one final gift.