Friday, March 25, 2011

My First Meal at Toro

I now know the first time I went to Toro was an important event in my food life. It happened after we'd been watching Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations for a season or so, and long after I read his essays collected in A Cook's Tour (still my favorite collection of food and travel writing). It was about the time Riss and I were thinking about getting a farm share and also, about the time I was learning about the importance of buying local. Along with all of that, I was also cooking more, being more creative with my cooking, and being less afraid of messing up while cooking. In short, the first time I went to Toro coincided with the transition of food from fuel, to an aspect of my culture. It was also, about the time we finally discovered restaurant week.

Toro is a Spanish style tapas restaurant in Boston's Southish end that happens to sit about fifty yards from a rather stark gentrification border. (Guess which side it's on.) In general, it's far too expensive for us to eat there, but Boston (and many other cities) has a “Restaurant Week” (which is really two weeks, but I'm not going to complain) in which restaurants offer a prix fix menu at an alarmingly reasonable price, a little over $30 per person for dinner and a little over $20 per person for lunch. Riss and I chose Toro because we decided to be adventurous with our Restaurant Week meal and Toro offered the most adventurous menu in the city that year.

Looking back on it, this could have been a make or break meal for us, because everything else followed from it. For example, in London we ate at a famous snout to tail restaurant called St. John's Bread and Wine, where Riss and I shared appetizers of calf's heart and bone marrow, I had pan fried calf's liver, and Riss had tongue, all with a side salad that had the best dressing I've ever consumed. (One way to tell a good restaurant; try what they're not famous for. If that's still good, it means they're committed to a good meal, not just a signature dish.) I also had woodcock in London, which tasted a like a slightly leaner, but no less delicious, duck. I've eaten oysters, I've had pho (which might be the world's perfect breakfast) with tripe and cartilage (though, at least at Les, I prefer the standard issue pho with beef round), and squid. On a trip to Chinatown, Riss and I picked out, pretty much at random, a few pastries to try. (Did not go well, but you can't win them all.) At Craigie on Main, a snout to tail restaurant in Cambridge (which mixes some killer cocktails as well) Riss and I got a half a pig's head peking duck style. (One of the best arguments for an anthro-centric deity organizing existence on the earth is the pig. I mean, even it's face is delicious.) And in our freezer now, along with farm share veggies, chili, sauce, and the more traditional cuts of meat we have liver, heart, and tongue (all bought from Jim, I might add).

I have to wonder what my relationship to food would be if that first meal at Toro had been a bad one. Would I have had the conviction to be adventurous again? Would I have gotten something interesting or something safe at the next restaurant I went to? What would I have dared to try in a foreign country? One of the things I've learned since that time is that, if you want to eat interesting meals, you're going to have to bad meals sometimes. Almost by definition, an interesting meal is going to taste bad to somebody, and every now and again, you're that somebody. Even if I knew that then, would I have believed it, if my first adventurous meal was also a bad meal? Obviously, it was not a bad meal.

It was one of, if not the, best meal of my life.

We had tapas dishes featuring heart, tongue, bone marrow, and pork belly. When we finished ordering the waiter was pleased. He said we'd ordered all the good stuff. There is a strange thrill in impressing a server at a nice restaurant; it's like acing a quiz.

I'm going to be honest, I generally find descriptions of the actual taste of food inadequate. Most writers pile approximations on top of each other, hoping accuracy accumulates from equivalents and all writers assume that “buttery,” or “velvety,” or “savory,” or any other taste word means the same thing to everyone. We have an agreed upon linguistic definition for all of those things, but there really is no way to know whether the experiences we actually have are shared in any meaningful way. (A universal problem highlighted by food writing in particular.)

So I won't try to transfer the taste of the pork belly to you, but I will say that with the first bite I had, I thought, “I have to slow down. I have to make this last. This is the best bite of anything I've ever had.” I won't throw comparisons around about the bone marrow in the vain hope that a phrase like, “light smooth salty beef flavored butter” will have any accurate meaning for anyone else. I'll just toss out there that the heart felt like dissolving velvet on the tongue. Because really the particular tastes weren't the important part of the meal. The important part was that I chose to eat adventurously and was rewarded with my first ever food high.

I think the term food high is pretty self-explanatory, but I'll add the term “glowing euphoria” just to make it clear. I'd been a relatively picky eater when I was younger. For the most part, one bad experience could set me off a particular food for years. I don't think I ate hamburger for a decade because I once got something weird in a hamburger. I think by the time of that first meal at Toro, I had outgrown a fair amount of that pickiness. But still, I have to wonder if I would have been brave enough to rebound from a first bad adventurous meal. But I have the luxury of only wondering. Now, Riss and I got to Toro once a year.

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