Restaurant Review: Toro Boston

Toro Boston

After hearing so much about the newly opened New York City outpost of Toro, we decided to check out the original location in Boston before visiting the newer one. Located in Boston’s South End, Toro puts a modern spin on traditional Spanish tapas. The restaurant itself is rustic and charming, featuring exposed brick and dim lighting, yet very loud thus not making it an ideal intimate date spot. But if you’re worried about sustaining and entire dinner long conversation without looking at your phone for half of your meal, Toro may be exactly what you’re looking for. The seating is incredibly crammed and the small space easily has the worst acoustics we’ve ever experienced while dining out, you essentially have to shout across the table no matter where you’re seated. However, the communal table seating in the middle of the restaurant is perfect for conversing with other guests. So just in case you don’t know what to talk to your date about, chances are someone next to you can help you out.

The menu is split up into four main sections plus a smaller section featuring about 4 paellas depending on when you go. Our recommendation would be to go for about 2-3 larger tapas per person for a full meal if you’re looking to try a few different things. Another route to go would be choosing one larger tapa per person and then splitting a full order of paella which can easily feed three people. Easily our favorite dish we ordered was the Asado de Huesos (Bone Marrow). The huge bone is split vertically in half easily giving enough salty yet savory bone marrow for two people. The Mollejas (Veal Sweetbreads) is actually an interesting play on the food’s name. While sweetbreads are normally very rich, Toro’s preparation removes the gamey flavors of the sweetbreads by serving them in a sweet blood orange sauce. We actually liked the contrast of the sweet and savory flavors though we overheard diners next to us complaining about the dish saying the sauce was too sweet and masked the flavors of the sweetbreads themselves. When it came time for the Paella Valenciana, the dish arrived in a huge paella pan that could barely fit on the table. The pan was filled with Calasparra rice, shrimp, mussels, clams, chicken and chorizo. While the mussels could have been a bit bigger, the paella was moist, flavorful and most importantly not overly salty as we find most paellas can be. We also liked the wine list which lists many solid Spanish wines at almost every price point (you can easily find a good bottle for around $40). The service is also surprisingly attentive for such a hectic restaurant. We mentioned our nut allergy to the server and the kitchen was easily able to make substitutions (the Mollejas are normally topped with peanuts but were removed for us).

While the wait for a table for two at Toro during prime hours can easily exceed two hours, and the crammed space makes waiting for a table at the bar almost impossible to bear the wait, the large menu, consistently good food and great service makes Toro worth the wait. We wouldn’t suggest coming with a party larger than four nor would we suggest dining there if you’re looking for a more intimate meal, but we do recommend visiting Toro at least once, if not more, to try the relatively inexpensive and innovative food.

Overall: 8

Verdict: Oasis

Toro

1704 Washington St.

Boston, MA 02118

617-536-4300

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Restaurant Review: Umami Burger

NYC

Finding a good hamburger in New York City is like finding a good slice of pizza. No matter what neighborhood you’re in there’s always a great burger spot whether it be an upscale restaurant like Minetta Tavern or a more low-key place like Burger Joint or Corner Bistro. When we heard the famed LA chain Umami Burger was opening in Greenwich Village we needed to see if it could match up to its NYC competitors. Umami, meaning savory in Japanese, combines high end burgers with a relaxed dining experience. The restaurant is very casual and doesn’t take reservations, so during prime hours expect waits of an hour or more. However  if you’re flying solo, like one of us did the first day Umami Burger opened, you may be able to snag a seat at the bar fairly quickly.

The menu is straight forward offering starters, salads, signature burgers and non-beef (aptly titled “un-beef” on the menu) options. To be honest, each time we visited Umami burger we skipped right over the salads and went straight for the burgers, (that’s why you go to Umami burger right?).  The fried “artisan” pickles come out whole, not sliced, with a side of jalapeno ranch sauce and are pretty good. The truffle cheese fries, julienne fries with melted truffle cheese, are basically cheese fries with a hint of truffle. We had the same problem with the Truffle Burger. The on the menu truffle burger is a traditional burger with truffled cheese. It’s incredibly rich and, quite frankly, delicious, however the whole “truffle” part is a bit misleading. The Manly Burger is a much better choice and comes with huge chunks of bacon lardon and onion rings. The Portuguese potato buns, each branded with a “U” on top, add a sweet flavor to the juicy burger overflowing with toppings. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can also take your chances on more unique burgers such as the 5 Spice Duck burger.

We enjoyed our visit to Umami Burger each time we went. We’d stick to the non-truffle options as they are a bit misleading but we have to say the burgers themselves are actually outstanding. In comparison to other NYC burgers, we definitely think Umami is a great addition to New York. In a city that is mainly focused on the quality of the meat in their burgers, it’s great to see a restaurant that focuses on offering unique toppings in addition to quality ingredients. While we wouldn’t wait over an hour for one of their burgers by any means, we would certainly head to Umami Burger anytime we were Downtown and looking for a good burger!

Overall: 7

Verdict: Oasis

Umami Burger

432 Avenue of the Americas

New York, NY 10011

212-677-8626

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Restaurant Review: Pastis

Keith McNally

Keith McNally’s popular Meatpacking District restaurant Pastis has become a New York City staple over the years. Essentially a smaller version of McNally’s Balthazar, Pastis is that neighborhood restaurant that everyone goes to not because the food is amazing or because its the most stunning place in the city. Pastis manages to create an upscale yet relaxed ambiance with reasonably priced and, for the most part, good French comfort food. The restaurant itself looks like a bistro straight out of Paris. Designed with brass railings and old looking mirrors with menus written on them, Pastis is so charming that you forget that the tables are so tightly packed that you can eavesdrop onto the next table simply on accident. Whether it be for lunch, brunch on the weekends or for dinner, Pastis is packed no matter what time of the day. Wait times can easily exceed 90 minutes for parties of two at peak times for walk-ins so we suggest booking a table in advanced. While the coveted outside seats do not accept reservations, making plans in advance does give you priority for the outdoor area over walk ins.

The lunch and dinner menus are quite similar. Simple French bistro fare such as Skate au Beurre Noir and Moules Frites, while not anything out of this world, cater to the American palate while sticking with the French theme of the restaurant. Certain dishes seem out of place such as the Fish and Chips and Fried Calamari, but most usually opt for the staple dishes: the Steak Frite and the Lobster. While most of the food is good, a few dishes go above and beyond the rest. We recall a moist and flavorful Roasted Poussin for lunch that was one of our favorite dishes served at Pastis. Sadly, the dish has since then been replaced with a regular roast chicken and while the original Poussin, a young chicken, was more tender, the same flavors are still there in the updated dish. On the brunch menu, we loved the Eggs Benedict served with a massive portion of home fries. For dessert, the crepes are always a great option. The service also does a great job of taking care of their tables without making diners feel rushed. The staff is also very attentive to food allergies, especially nut allergies for a place that fries in Peanut oil.

While the food at Pastis may not be the most innovative, most of the menu is satisfying with a few outstanding options. The atmosphere is probably the biggest draw to the restaurant which makes it perfect for after dinner drinks once your meal is done. We were saddened to hear that Pastis is temporarily closing after service on January 31st due to building construction, but this is all the more reason to check it out before it closes!

Overall: 9

Verdict: Oasis

Pastis

9 9th Ave.

New York, NY 10014

212-929-4844

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Restaurant Review: Tao Downtown

Tao

Strategic Group’s massive addition to the already bustling Meatpacking District, Tao Downtown, has received a lot of buzz since it’s opening. Both Tao locations have a reputation of being a place to have a good time rather than to eat great food and, to be honest, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Located in the Maritime Hotel and designed by luxury design firm Rockwell Group, Tao is housed in both the former Matsuri and Hiro Ballroom spaces and can seat over 1,000 guests. The restaurant itself looks like a more updated version of Tao in Midtown and has a clientele to match. Of course the business and uptown clients can be found in both the uptown and downtown locations, given the high tabs, but the new Tao also has a larger fashion crowd.

The bar area becomes packed at around 8 PM, conveniently around the same time the DJ arrives, and comes complete with a nightclub-esque bottle menu. Bottles of Belvedere sell for around $400 and bottles of Johnnie Walker Blue are subject to a 4x retail mark up selling for $800. If an $800 seems a bit steep the same blended luxury scotch is available for $40 by the glass, which is still pricey but not totally outrageous considering Top of the Standard charges $75 for a glass of the same liquor. If hard liquor isn’t your thing but you still want the best, the wine list features $2500 bottles of 1996 Chateau Latour, which retails for around $800, and $1600 bottles of 1996 Chateau Mouton Rothschild, which retails for around $600. High prices remain consistent across both the drink and food menus. If drinking at the table seems too boring and common for you, feel free to grab a drink at the fully stocked bar located conveniently in the bathroom.

The menu has been set up to be conducive to sharing. Traditionally ordering an appetizer, entree and dessert may not be the best route to take when approaching Tao’s menu. We would suggest ordering about 2 appetizers per person, since portions are rather small, and an entree. If opting for strictly sushi, we suggest two to three specialty rolls and and one of the three Omakase options. However, don’t expect a traditional Omakase which is usually served piece by piece. The Omakase at Tao is essentially a sushi deluxe and while it is pricey (11 pieces and a roll sell for $59) the sushi isn’t terrible, it’s actually pretty good. After a lackluster experience with Tao Uptown’s sushi we were pleasantly surprised with the quality and freshness of the fish at Tao. We’re not saying Tao is on par, or even close, to restaurants like Sushi Seki, we must say what we had was better than we expected.

The cooked food is also much better than we anticipated. The dim-sum menu, especially the Pork Potstickers, proved to be tasty and great for sharing. Entrees such as the Peking Duck for two were quite good but beware as the “for two” can be a bit deceiving. We also enjoyed the moist Black Cod and the Pad Thai that could easily feed two people. The Black Bass, one of the more simple dishes we tried, is perfect for less adventurous diners and the sides were also shockingly good as well. We suggest about one rice dish per two people and one side per person.

We must say, the quality of the food at Tao Downtown was much better than we expected. For a restaurant you’re not going to mainly for the food, we honestly enjoyed everything we ate. Though the prices are a bit expensive for the food you’re getting, you also have to take into consideration that at a place such as Tao, you pay for the atmosphere more than the food. Sure, $38 for the Black Cod and $17 for fried rice is a bit absurd if served anywhere else, but Tao creates such a fun and lively atmosphere that we didn’t really mind the high prices. The restaurant itself is stunning, the service is quick yet we never felt rushed, and the food, while certainly not the best we’ve ever had by any means, was good enough for a restaurant where food isn’t the first priority. If money is not an option, we would recommend Tao Downtown to anyone looking for a fun night out.

Overall: 7

Verdict: Oasis

Tao Downtown

92 9th Ave.

New York, NY 10011

212-888-2724

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Restaurant Review: Union Square Cafe

Union Square Cafe

We finally got the chance to check out Danny Meyer’s first restaurant, Union Square Cafe. Located right off Union Square Park, this iconic New York City staple serves seasonal Italian influenced American fare in an upscale yet relaxed setting. After walking in the door, we loved the restaurant’s clean yet elegant decor. The large, colorful paintings around the restaurant brought life to each of the four dining areas. The large main dining area features a sound insulated ceiling so the chatter from the diners never reaches past the host stand. Since Union Square Cafe is such a well known neighborhood restaurant, the clientele was an interesting mix ranging from older Gramercy locals to younger guests celebrating birthdays and other special occasions.

The menu, while for the most part American, has a heavy Italian influence. Appetizers range from lighter dishes such as the Honey Crisp Apple Salad to more hearty dishes like the Fried Calamari and Beef Carpaccio. And whichever route you decide to take, the starters are very good overall. The Yellowfin Tuna Crudo was light and refreshing and the Beef Carpaccio itself was good but the overall dish became even better when paired with the crispy artichokes and mushrooms that came with the dish. The Fried Calamari was probably the biggest surprise of the starters we tried. Usually it can be unmemorable, but the Fried Calamari we tried here was some of the best we have tried in New York. The portion was quite generous and the squid was perfectly seasoned and not too heavy or oily.

The pastas were equally as good, if not a bit better than the excellent appetizers. The Fettucine Bolognese took a traditional Italian dish but put a modern twist on the sauce by adding butternut squash. As a result, the sauce was lighter than a typical bolognese but packed just as much flavor. The Ricotta Gnocchi, while simply prepared with only a tomato sauce and topped with Parmesan cheese, was excellent as well. The sauce was easily our favorite part of the dish and the gnocchi itself was much lighter than traditional potato gnocchi which was a nice touch considering the simplicity of the dish. The Butternut Squash Tortelli was a bit too sweet for our palate however, we liked the savory Mezzi Paccheri with Guanciale and Brussels Sprouts very much. The entrees were also on par with everything else we enjoyed. The Pork Chop was cooked perfectly and came with cubes of sweet maple glazed rutabaga and brussels sprouts. The Swordfish was a bit undercooked but the delicate flavors saved the dish. The Prosciutto Wrapped Scallops and Lamb Chops were also very good. While the food was excellent overall, the service was the only average part of our dinner. Our waiter seemed forgetful at times of a nut allergy at our table. When requesting the Sundae as a dessert without peanut butter ice cream, we received the dish as it is normally served. Luckily, we noticed it before anyone could eat it. Usually, we don’t mind when substitutions are forgotten but when it is for a food allergy we feel then it should be taken seriously.

We enjoyed our visit to Union Square Cafe very much. The food was excellent and the decor was simple yet charming. While the service wasn’t as stellar as the food, we felt the food compensated for this. We highly recommend Union Square Cafe and since reservations can be hard to come by, suggest making them as soon as you can.

Overall: 8

Verdict: Oasis

Union Square Cafe

21 E 16th St.

New York, NY 10003

212-243-4020

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