Restaurant Week Brunch at El Toro Blanco: Indulgent Mexican Comfort Food

2014-02-23 12.31.29

We now return to our regularly scheduled programming to bring you another NYC restaurant review. Just before Jacob left for his own Birthright trip, we snuck in a few Winter Restaurant Week meals, the first of which was at El Toro Blanco. Although it had been on my list for a while, I was especially drawn to the restaurant because it was one of the only establishments that offered a brunch option for RW, and how can you resist the dual siren call of Mexican brunch and a 3 course prefixe for $25? Plus, we had to make sure Jacob topped off his salsa quota before flying off to the lands of hummus and shawarma. And thanks to El Toro Blanco, he got to indulge in more than enough queso fresco before trading his tortilla for pita.

 

First Impressions:

The main dining space of El Toro Blanco made me think of a 1970s dream "man-cave."

The main dining space of El Toro Blanco made me think of a 1970s dream “man-cave.”

El Toro Blanco is one of those restaurants you’re bound to walk by a million times, since it’s located on 6th Ave, just off of Houston. Sitting on a wide block on the west side of the street, there was a small fenced-off area I assume is for outdoor dining in warmer weather, although on the blustery day we visited, I was happy to be seated inside. The interior of the restaurant is a open and full of light, thanks to the plate glass windows lining the front. There’s a bit of a 1970s living room vibe to the decor — lots of wood paneling, black bricks and orange leather, with some multicolored hanging lanterns and funky art on the wall (ranging from the Mexican flag to multiple paintings of bulls, or “toros”).

 

The main bar, with the small upstairs dining room above it.

The main bar, with the small upstairs dining room above it.

The main bar is directly across from the front door, but there’s another small bar just to the right as you enter, both offering seats for dining as well. When we first arrived at 12:30, the place was pretty empty, but by the end of our brunch it had filled up, with most of the space at the bar taken up by people both eating and drinking. We were led up to a table in the small upstairs section behind the main bar, which gave you a nice view of the dining room below, and was a little quieter until a large group of half-tipsy women took over the banquette tables across from us.

 

Our quiet little hideaway of tables, until the ladies brunch arrived.

Our quiet little hideaway of tables, until the ladies brunch arrived (after these guys left).

Overall the service was friendly if not overly attentive, probably because El Toro Blanco is such a popular spot. It’s clearly a trendy place that has high volume (and likely rowdy) brunches, so it’s no surprise that they’re happy to make suggestions, but hardly hang on your every word like our waiter at Ippudo. I should give credit to our hostess who offered us her advice on the best brunch dishes — we ended up ordering based on her suggestions, and her taste was impeccable.

 

The Food:

While there were a number of appealing drinks on the cocktail menu, Jacob and I opted for a dry brunch (let’s just say there was a raucous wine and cheese going away soiree for him the night before). El Toro Blanco’s Winter Restaurant Week brunch offered three courses for $25, with most of their regular offerings available on the RW menu. Based on our own Mexican brunch preferences, and the enthusiastic reviews from the hostess, Jacob started with the Costillas Empanadas, and I ordered the Oaxaqueño Tamale, a substitution from the main menu since they had run out of the special RW Elote Verde Tamale. For main courses Jacob got the Chilaquiles con Huevos, and I had the Huevos Rancheros Verdes, and for dessert Jacob chose the Cinnamon & Sugar Churros and I went with the Mexican Chocolate Cake. All of the portions were substantial and filling, leaving me very satisfied with the cost-to-plate ratio.

 

My substitue Oaxaquena Tamale -- unanticipated, but delicious.

My substitute  Oaxaqueno Tamale — unanticipated, but delicious.

The Elote Verde Tamale (fresh corn, roasted poblano chile, queso fresco, crema, green chile salsa) had piqued my interest, especially since I don’t have a lot of experience with green salsa. So even though I was disappointed to miss out on it, the Oaxaqueño Tamale (roasted chicken, plantain, red mole, queso cotija, crema) was a more than satisfying substitution. I almost always jump at the chance to have plantains (tostones, I love you), although here they mostly served as a textural element. The hefty, square tamale arrived absolutely slathered in red mole, which gave the entire dish a deep cocoa richness. Between that, the sweetness from the plantains, and the crema and cotija cheese, this was a pretty decadent start to the meal (and a good indication of what was to come). My fork sliced easily through the cornmeal wrapper into the interior of shredded chicken and cheese. I think the Elote Verde might have been a slightly lighter and spicier opening act, but I had no complaints about the deep flavor of its tamale understudy.

 

I mean, how can you go wrong with fried dough, meat and cheese?

The Costillas Empanadas — I mean, how can you go wrong with fried dough, meat and cheese?

Jacob’s Costillas Empanadas (slow roasted short rib, oaxaca cheese, ancho barbecue, crema) were more cleanly plated, two petite pockets of dough with just a small cup of sauce next to them. I can’t count the number of short rib dishes I’ve talked about on this blog, but I’m sure a quick search will give an overly detailed account of my love for this iteration of beef. I’d even venture that it has replaced brisket in the top spot (except for my mom’s Passover version, of course). El Toro Blanco presented another fine rendition of short rib, the meat tender and juicy, combining with the oaxaca cheese to evoke an upscale mexican cheeseburger. The dough shell was fried to golden-brown, crispy on the edges and chewy in the middle, its flavor subtle and mostly just a vehicle for the filling and the bbq dipping sauce, heavy on the smoky umami flavor and with just a bit of a kick from the ancho. While my tamale was good, these were really memorable empanadas, high quality and well worth returning for.

 

The Huevos Rancheros Verdes, a cornucopia of Mexican ingredients.

The Huevos Rancheros Verdes, a veritable cornucopia of Mexican ingredients.

Once we moved beyond the appetizers, the entrees and desserts were all versions of dishes I’d had before, but I was impressed by the precision and care which El Toro Blanco put into their cooking. Turns out I unintentionally ensured my opportunity to have green salsa by orering the Huevos Rancheros Verdes (corn tortillas, ham, refried pinto beans, sunny side up eggs green chile salsa, queso fresco, avocado, pico de gallo). What I like about huevos rancheros is that so many places add small, unconventional touches to their take on the dish, be it the meat or beans used, or even the plating. El Toro Blanco’s version starts with crispy corn tortillas on the bottom, hardy enough to hold up against the onslaught of sauces and cheeses, without being rock hard like a recent rendition I had to stab my way through at another brunch. The base was topped with sunny side up eggs and smothered in beans, green chile salsa, pico de gallo, and queso fresco. I had channeled a bit of Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally when ordering, asking to sub the ham for chorizo, but to be honest, I didn’t even really notice the meat, except that it added a little heat and some textural density. Sure, it looks somewhat messy, but if you look closer you can see how everything is actually quite well-executed and composed. The eggs have crispy edges at the rim of the white, with soft domes of yolk just waiting to be broken and flood out onto the dish, the fresh cut tomatoes and onions split the tortillas in contrast to the vivid color of the salsa verde. I’m glad I did get to try El Toro Blanco’s salsa verde, which was bright and tart from the tomatillos, but I think I actually prefer having both red and green salsa on my eggs, like in Huevos Divorciados (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Huevos_divorciados).

 

The Chilaquiles -- don't judge a book by its cover, this guy will hulk smash your hangover.

The Chilaquiles con Huevos — don’t judge a book by its cover, this guy will hulk smash your hangover.

While huevos rancheros is my go-to for Latin brunch, Jacob is a sucker for chilaquiles, so he was just as excited for his entree. El Toro Blanco’s Chilaquiles con Huevos (baked saucy nachos, guajillo salsa, fried eggs, melted mexican cheese, crema, avocado, pico de gallo) had the most interesting presentation of the meal, arriving in a little cast iron pan. One glimpse at the dish and it’s clear why it’s a perfect brunch item — it’s basically nachos + eggs, so plenty of carbs and cheese to sop up hangover ills. Despite the petite plating, this was a deceptively large portion, layer upon layer of chips divided by thick strands of mexican cheese mixed with crema, salsa, and pico de gallo, and then topped with a generous sprinkling of even more cotija, to fully ward off the lactose intolerant. You can’t even see the fried eggs in there, but believe me, the same creamy yolks were hiding in wait to spill out and put the whole dish over the top. While I enjoyed the tastes I had of Jacob’s dish, I found myself more eager to return to my own entree, overwhelmed by the carb and dairy bonanza of his tasty gut-bomb of a dish.

 

The Mexican Chocolate Cake

The Mexican Chocolate Cake with bonus matchstick churros.

It’s lucky that both Jacob and I are freaks of nature with secondary stomachs designed solely for dessert consumption, because after our mountains of cheese and salsa, there was still another course to come. There ended up being a fair amount of overlap between our desserts, each of our dishes highlighting chocolate, dulce de leche, and cinnamon-sugar flavors. My Mexican Chocolate Cake (matchstick churros & dulce de leche ice cream) came with mini churros (bonus!), and ended up being a more refined version of a lava cake. The cake itself was made of a moist crumb of rich chocolate with a hint of chili powder, totally covered in a thick chocolate sauce that made each forkful gooey. The dulce de leche ice cream was sweet without being overpoweringly sugary, and the mini churros gave a bit of a crunchy break to the other soft elements of the plate. Much like my huevos rancheros, this dessert wasn’t groundbreaking, but rather a familiar treat done very well.

 

And their big brothers, the Cinnamon Sugar Churros.

And their big brothers, the Cinnamon Sugar Churros, with addictive chocolate and dulce de leche sauces.

When Jacob’s Cinnamon & Sugar Churros (chocolate & dulce de leche sauces) came to the table, I initially thought he had gotten the short end of the stick (er, churro?), since there were only two pieces in the basket. Fortunately, much like his little pan of chilaquiles, these churros proved to be plenty filling. The two pieces were hefty logs of fried dough doused in cinnamon and sugar, each bite starting with a crisp and crunchy crust that gave way to an airy interior. I think I prefer these to the churros we had at LeChurro, although I may be inviting controversy by unfairly comparing Mexican and Spanish churros. I was largely swayed by the dipping sauces El Toro Blanco served with the churros. I found myself dipping and double dipping into the chocolate and dulce de leche sauces, long after Jacob had finished.

 

Final Thoughts:

It’s always nice to find a solid restaurant to add to your rotation, and I would say my RW brunch at El Toro Blanco earned it a spot. Aside from my tamale, none of the dishes were unknown territory for me, but all of them were well-seasoned and extremely generous in portion size. Sure, their regular menu is pricier than your average Mexican spot, but if the RW service is any indication, you certainly get your money’s worth. I’m looking forward to the opportunity to come back and try the rest of El Toro Blanco’s offerings, especially in the summer, when I can sit outside, sip a cocktail, and then walk all the way home after scaling a mountain of tortilla and cheese.

 

El Toro Blanco

257 Avenue of the Americas (off Houston)

eltoroblanconyc.com

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Hooked by Seattle’s Seafood: Dinner at Ray’s Boathouse

2013-12-20 20.36.20

Just before Christmas I headed back to Seattle, ostensibly to visit my brother and his fiancee, but really to get a sobering look at just how big my hair can get in the unending mist of the Pacific Northwest winter. If it wasn’t abundantly clear from my previous posts about Seattle, the city has a great food scene, especially when it comes to seafood, so I couldn’t help but jump at the chance to dig into at least a fish or two. My parents were along for the trip to see Dan and Leah’s new home city, so on my first night out we made our way over to Ballard to Ray’s Boathouse.

 

First Impressions:

Wait, tell me again -- who's boathouse are we going to?

Wait, tell me again — who’s boathouse are we going to?

Ray’s Boathouse is located in Ballard, an area historically known as the center of Seattle’s Scandinavian fishing and sailing community. The neighborhood even has a Nordic Heritage Museum, and on my previous trip Dan and I visited the annual Ballard Seafood Fest (remember, right before we ate D’Ambrosio gelato … which sounds gross in abstract, but was perfectly logical and delicious at the time). It should therefore come as no shock that Ray’s is located right on Puget Sound. It was dark by the time we arrived for dinner, but the back of the restaurant is lined with huge windows, allowing us to see the lights of a trawler passing by during our meal, its lights shimmering off the water and giving the barest glimpse of how beautiful the view must be during the warmer months.

Reverence for the past with photos of historic fishing crews ... and a giant ceramic fish.

Reverence for the past with photos of historic fishing crews … and a giant ceramic fish.

It’s impossible to miss Ray’s, due to the giant neon sign spelling out R-A-Y-S, a touch I initially thought was retro until I found out the boathouse dates back to 1952, and Ray himself built the sign. The interior still features authentic elements of a boathouse, with wood paneling all around, pictures of fishermen lining the walls, and even a giant ceramic fish at the top of the stairs. The first floor holds the main restaurant and bar, while a more casual cafe takes up the second floor.

The view from our booth, looking over towards the massive center bar.

The view from our booth, looking over towards the massive center bar.

Ray’s main dining room is grounded with an enormous bar in the center, blocked off from the rest of the restaurant by waist-high dividers. The design is casual, but refined, made up of leather half-moon booths along the inside wall and dark wood tables with deep brown leather chairs around them. You can’t help but feel a certain sense of timelessness — a kind of comfortable confidence that comes from a restaurant that’s been around the block a few decades.

 

The Food:

Ray’s Boathouse is a traditional seafood restaurant, offering the typical proteins based on seasonal, local fare, but updated to reflect current trends. But before we dive into the menu, that big ol’ bar in the middle of the restaurant lived up to expectation, at least from the drinks we ordered. My mother and I were boring and ordered glasses of Riesling, but the rest of our table went a little more off the beaten path, with Leah ordering a sparkling rose, Dan getting a cocktail called the Lido Deck (Aviation gin, cardamom, grapefruit, lime), and my dad going for the Anchors Away (Goslings Black Seal, Crème De Cassis, lime, ginger beer). You gotta love the nautical-themed cocktail list, and all the drinks were well-mixed and refreshing. I’m usually not a big gin person, but the combination of the acidity of the grapefruit and lime and the cardamom in the Lido Deck was really intriguing, at least for the small sip I had.

Now when my family goes out to dinner, especially if it’s a vacation dinner, things can get a little out of hand. After conferring with our very friendly and helpful server Jennifer, we decided to get two orders of the Warm Rosemary Gougeres for the table to start. My mother and I split the Chiogga Beet & Goat Cheese Salad, my father got a bowl of Ray’s Pacific Northwest Chowder, Dan started with the Local Albacore Poke, and Leah had Ray’s Seasonal Salad. Then, for our entrees, my dad and I got the Smoked Sablefish, Dan got the Sablefish in Sake Kasu, my mom chose the Wild Cedar Plank Salmon, and Leah got a vegetarian version of the Housemade Tajarin Pasta. Oh, and you know there’s dessert — we finished the meal with an order of the Peanut Butter Bomb, belatedly in honor of Dan’s birthday.

Our complimentary bread basket, playing coy with a few errant crackers sticking up.

Our complimentary bread basket, playing coy with a few errant crackers sticking up.

The complimentary bread was presented as a wrapped package, with a row of flatbread crisps arrayed upright in stegosaurus-style down the middle. Beneath the napkins were a few soft white rolls, along with fresh butter. The bread was standard, but not particularly memorable, especially when compared to the more robustly flavored gougeres to come.

 

The Warm Rosemary Gougeres, bite size pastries with unreal gruyere dipping sauce.

The Warm Rosemary Gougeres, bite size doughy pillows with unreal gruyere dipping sauce — cheez whiz for an individual with refined taste.

When the Warm Rosemary Gougeres (Housemade pastry puffs with melted gruyere dipping sauce) arrived, it immediately became apparent that we didn’t need two orders — there were probably ten little puffs in each bowl. The gougeres themselves reminded me of miniature popovers, airy and flaky on the inside, with a crusty exterior. They were buttery and sweet, with just a hint of rosemary. But the real standout portion of the dish was the gruyere sauce, a rich whallop of pure nutty gruyere flavor. My father described it as “elevated cheez whiz,” and it was almost a midway step to fondue, a smooth, creamy spread that managed to remain room temperature without congealing. I asked Jennifer how it was made, and she explained that it’s really just gruyere melted down (with a little bit of butter), then kept stabilized in pressurized canisters (like the ones they use to dispense whipped cream). Simple as that might seem, the cheese sauce was one of the best elements of the dinner for me.

 

The Chiogga Beet Salad -- delicately composed, but held back by clumpy goat cheese.

The Chiogga Beet Salad — delicately composed, if held back by clumpy goat cheese.

The Chiogga Beet and Goat Cheese Salad (mixed baby greens, white balsamic, Laura Chanel goat cheese, Oregon hazelnuts) turned out to be pretty similar to the salad I had at Fulton a month back. Not that I mind — I obviously love the combination of ingredients, or I wouldn’t order it over and over. I did like the plating more at Ray’s — the thin slices of beet on one side, and the dressed greens on the other, topped with a few clumps of goat cheese and sprinkling of hazelnuts. I love fresh goat cheese, especially in salads, but the sticky properties of the cheese make equal distribution across a dish difficult, and I found myself wishing for a bit more cheese. Still, this cheese had good flavor, and it was probably good to have only a small amount, considering the whole of my dinner. The nuts added a little crunch, especially useful paired with the beets, which were moist and mild, serving as a vehicle for the white balsamic.

 

The Local Albacore Poke -- a new dish for me that might have changed my mind about raw tuna.

The Local Albacore Poke — a new dish for me that might have changed my mind about raw tuna.

I’d never had poke before, but after Dan gave me a taste of his appetizer, I actually asked him if I could have a second bite. Poke is a Hawaiian raw fish salad, usually made of tuna marinated in a soy/salt/sesame/chili mixture. While I was a big tunafish sandwich fan growing up, I’m still hit-or-miss on the raw sashimi form, but the fish in Ray’s Local Albacore Poke (Sesame crackers, cilantro, lime) made me rethink my previous hangups. Again, Seattle knocks it out of the park on baseline, sea-sourced protein. The chunks of tuna were soft without being mushy, and I loved the acidity imparted by the cilantro and lime (and of course I’m always down for a great cracker). This dish made we want to seek out poke at other restaurants.

 

Ray's Pacific Northwest Chowder, with pillars of tempura fried clams rising out of the broth.

Ray’s Pacific Northwest Chowder, with pillars of tempura fried clams rising out of the broth.

I didn’t get to try Leah’s Ray’s Seasonal Salad (Sherry vinaigrette, radish, pumpkin seeds, aged cheddar), but I think she enjoyed it. I did have a chance to taste my father’s bowl of Ray’s Pacific Northwest Chowder (Tempura razor clams, smoked salmon, thyme, fingerling potatoes, fennel), which was a punch in the mouth of excellent seafood. The tempura-fried clams were an interesting addition, sticking up out of the bowl so the majority of the pieces stayed crunchy. Coming from the northeast and our endless iterations of New England Clam Chowder, it was cool to see a variation that played to the strengths of the West Coast.

 

The Wild Cedar Plank Salmon, cooked to my mother's specifications and a fine specimen of fish.

The Wild Cedar Plank Salmon, cooked to my mother’s specifications and a fine fish specimen.

Our entrees were all solid, satisfying contenders, although some dishes stood out more than others. I tried a bite of Leah’s Vegetarian Tajarin Housemade Pasta (mixed vegetables, mushrooms, Tutto Calabrian chiles, arugula, sherry sauce), mostly because I was curious about what “tajarin” looked like. It turned out to be a noodle somewhere in between fettuccine and linguini, and was well-made, soft but not too starchy. I also only had a small taste of my mom’s Wild Cedar Plank Salmon (White bean cassoulet, baby carrots, broccolini, garlic confit), since I’m still not a salmon convert. Like my previous experiences with salmon in Seattle, I could tell this was a great piece of fish, even if the flavor is not appealing to me. My mother had asked for the salmon to be a little more well-done than the barely medium it is usually served at, and was pleased by the way it arrived, fully cooked but not too dry. She also really loved the white bean cassoulet, especially the consistency of the beans, which still had a bit of snap to them. I enjoyed the vegetables, but personally fall more on the creamy-style beans, so I thought that here they detracted from the cassoulet.

 

The Smoked Sablefish, served with an addictive cilantro pesto.

The Smoked Sablefish, served with an addictive cilantro pesto.

While I enjoyed my dish as a whole, the most memorable elements of my Smoked Sablefish (roasted baby carrots, coriander, cilantro pesto, sautéed rainbow chard) were the accompanying vegetables (wow, I’m a boring adult, getting all excited about vegetables. Thank god I have dessert to talk about in a bit). That being said, this was again a high caliber fish, the flesh supple, gliding off with a swipe of my fork, and melting on the tongue. The smoked flavor was subtle, a little sweet rather than the harsher, ashy smokiness you get with barbecue sometimes. As with my mother’s salmon, the large cut of sablefish rested atop the accompaniments, in my case a bed of sauteed rainbow chard, cooked down to a velvety consistency, like a lighter creamed spinach. On the side were baby carrots, sweet and soft without falling into mush, resting in the cilantro pesto. The cilantro was prominent but not overwhelming, and I couldn’t get enough of the sauce, wanting to pour it over every piece of the dish. I ended up leaving a bit of the fish uneaten, but I literally scraped the pesto off my plate to get every last drop.

 

The Sablefish in Sake Kasu — tinged with Eastern flavors, but still grounded in Seattle’s local fish market.

The Sablefish in Sake Kasu — tinged with Eastern flavors, but still grounded in Seattle’s local fish market.

My overall favorite bite of the night was Dan’s Sablefish in Sake Kasu (jasmine rice, gingered bok choy, honey-soy). It was the only fish entree we had that was plated differently, this time in a large bowl, layered with the sake sauce at the base, followed by the rice, the bok choy, and the sablefish on top. The mix of honey, ginger and soy really woke up my tastebuds, and at least for the small taste I had, I found the powerful mix of salty, sweet and acidic highlighted the fish more than the smoked take I ordered. It’s hard to say how I would have felt eating a whole portion, but Dan polished his off and declared it his favorite plate as well.

Obviously this dessert was meant for Dan. Even if he didn't actually eat any of it.

Obviously this dessert was meant for Dan. Even if he didn’t actually eat any of it.

So we had to get dessert, right? I mean, how can you celebrate someone’s birthday (coughthatwasinNovembercough) without a candle-topped indulgence and some awkward staff/family singing? Dan was actually least invested in the dessert, which was mainly taken down by Leah, my mom and I. The surprisingly under-described Peanut Butter Bomb turned out to be a chocolate-coated hemisphere of peanut butter mousse with a graham cracker crust on the bottom and crushed peanuts on top, accompanied by a concord grape sorbet with chocolate sauce and crushed peanuts underneath it. The mousse itself was delicious, with a strong peanut flavor and a consistency close to cheesecake thickness. Despite not being that big of a “grape-flavored foods” person, I actually really liked the sorbet. Here it succeeded in evoking the nostalgia of a PB&J, providing a palate-cleansing freshness against the richness of the mousse and chocolate shell. Since it was a sorbet it had a light texture and was sweet, but not tooth-achingly so (don’t worry, the chocolate sauce on the bottom helped put the sugar over the top). The only disappointing aspect of the dish was the crust, which didn’t have much flavor and got soggy over time, eventually becoming lost among the more assertive elements of the dessert.

 

Final Thoughts:

I guess I should just say this once and for all, since presumably I’ll have the good fortune to visit Seattle many times over the next few years — Seattle just has amazing seafood. No bones about it, it brings serious game on the gill front. My dinner at Ray’s Boathouse was a satisfying, well-rounded meal, but I think as a visitor I’d rather go back and see what new innovations are being concocted at Tanglewood Supreme than go another round with Ray’s. What made the meal memorable was really the quality of the fish, like in Dan’s Poke and Sablefish, and the eye towards regional influences, like the Asian-inflected chowder. None of the dishes were showstoppers, but it was a comfortable environment with a courteous staff and a unique cocktail list. Looking at their cafe menu, I actually think I’d be more inclined to come back for a visit to the counter upstairs, to check out how the kitchen deals with more casual pub grub, like fish and chips or crab cakes.  Much like a classic steakhouse in New York, I think Ray’s Boathouse is the kind of restaurant to have in your back pocket — not necessarily a bucket-list destination, but an establishment where you know you’ll get a high grade meal and be treated right. Now if they’d only start selling that gruyere sauce separately, I’d keep the place in business single-handedly.

 

Ray’s Boathouse

6049 Seaview Avenue NW

Seattle, WA

http://www.rays.com/