TORO TAPAS & TEQUILA
224 E. Main St., Patchogue
AMBIENCE:Fastidious dining room and expansive bar host a neighborhood tapas spot that offers earnest hospitality and interesting food.
ESSENTIALS: Open for dinner, 5 to 10 p.m. every day. Major credit cards and reservations accepted, wheelchair accessible, parking lot
Toro Tapas & Tequila tucks back from East Main Street on Rider Avenue in Patchogue, a few steps from a handful of Latin delis and a gym. With its unassuming facade, the Spanish spot masquerades as an outlier serving $16 glasses of wine and small plates such as a lusty braised oxtail tapas, with a spindly Spanish prawn as a garnish. The restaurant’s opening and its aspirational menu illustrates the town’s transition into one of Long Island’s burgeoning restaurant destinations.
The primary partner/owner of this restaurant that opened in July, Ariel Bonilla, plays the role of general manager, overseeing a dining room he inherited from his father Jose’s now-closed Jalapeno — one of several family businesses, including Bravo Supermarket and La Confianza Deli, less than a mile away.
Bonilla ended up hiring Barcelona native Alex Bujoreanu, who had been the head chef at Viaggio Tapas in Rockville Centre. The result is Toro’s Spanish menu that includes a raw bar, salads, flatbreads and an unorthodox take on tapas. (Traditional tapas are simple and rustic, with few ingredients on a plate, yet they’re often quite memorable.) Seafood paella is the standout here — fragrant with fresh shellfish and layered with the sweetness from the starch of bomba rice.
Among other reasons to visit, the place is charming. Servers are incredibly warm in a way that’s more colloquial than fine dining, yet here they are, serving an amuse-bouche — a pureed gazpacho of tomatoes, peppers and herbs, served in a shot glass.
These servers are also pouring mostly Old World wines from a red-focused list along with the requisite Verdejo, Spanish rosé and a couple of after-dinner sherries. Head to the bar for an extensive margarita and tequila menu, also available in the dining room.
Small plates can be interesting but aren’t always well executed, with too heavy a hand and too many ingredients. It’s as if the chef has been influenced by artistic plating, but hasn’t yet developed technique or deep knowledge of a culture’s cuisine. (Bujoreanu wasn’t in the kitchen during my visits.)
Order the pillowy bacalao croquettes rich with salt cod. The patatas bravas are fine, provided they’re not wearing too much paprika-infused aioli. Grilled shrimp with Spanish seasoning such as Basque choricero pepper is an admirable choice, while that oxtail with a Spanish prawn is a dramatic display of lusty beef that would have benefited from a longer braise.
The paella serves two and then some. Allow time to linger, to pluck each mussel and clam from its shell, to savor rice laced with saltwater liquor. On my visit, there was no socarrat (traditional rice stuck to the bottom of the pan) and I missed it. You might be luckier.
In between the paella and dessert — flan with coconut-infused whipped cream, figs and berries, garnished with edible flowers — Radu Grigore, 24, the young sous chef from Romania, came over to our table.
“Why hadn’t you finished your plates?” he asked, suspecting that something was wrong when, in fact, we had over-ordered. His guilelessness was refreshing and even inviting. At our asking how he ended up here, in this town, in this restaurant, he told the story of his arrival in the United States by way of London, about how he has been cooking in restaurant kitchens since he was a teenager, and about being mentored by Bujoreanu.
His visit would be out of place at a more expensive, high-design spot, yet it enhanced the experience at this eclectic and ambitious neighborhood restaurant.