CAYO COCO (304 Richmond West, at John, 416-593-9000) Complete tapas meals for $40 per person ($30 at lunch), including all taxes, tip and a mojito. Average tapas $7. Open Monday to Wednesday 11:30 am to 10 pm, Thursday 11:30 am to 2 am, Friday 11:30 am to 3 am, Saturday 4:30 pm to 3 am, Sunday 4:30 pm to 2 am. Licensed. Access: six steps at door, 18 steps to second-floor dining room. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
Opening a serious Spanish resto deep downtown in Clubland is certainly a risk. Launching one in a noisy nabe that equates the food of the Iberian peninsula with cheap burritos is even more so.
But former Mövenpick director and first-time restaurateur William Eng's Cayo Coco has bucked the odds and created a charming spot in a Victorian row house squeezed between Joe and the Joker right across from the Paramount that will appeal to club kids and epicures alike. Some trick! His two-month-old supper club's Spanish card manages the seemingly impossible by offering more than 40 tapas, many of them modestly pegged in the $5 to $8 range.
Those in the know, thanks to the tireless promotion of the Spanish Trade Commission, have been hyping tapas as the next big foodie thing for years.
Sadly, locally "tapas" generally means smaller plates and bigger prices: witness the Asian tapas at Susur Lee's lamentable Lee.
Most of Cayo Coco's menu plays it safe, but at least it consists of snack-sized, shareable dishes that are technically tapas.
Instead of grabbing a seat at the darkly romantic downstairs bar as tapas tradition dictates and lingering over a slow series of savouries and several 36-ounce pitchers of sangria ($22.95), we trundle upstairs to the more formal 30-or-so-seat dining room.
There we bypass standard fare like Pasta Primavera ($9.95 as part of a three-course lunch special or $11.95 as a dinner main), rack of lamb ($27.95) and five types of paella (from $25.95 with just veggies to $48.95 with lobster) and focus on tapas.
The first of nine to arrive in quick succession, intriguing crab tartlets ($9.95) turn out to be a pleasant trio of canapé-sized puff pastry shells amply filled with shredded seafood in sour cream and mayo, garnished with retro sprigs of parsley and plated on a mound of equally dated iceberg lettuce.
Similarly inoffensive, potato salad ($4.95) finds a number of red-jacketed taters awash in another creamy mayo, this time thick with a diminutive mince of dill pickle and capers.
But chef Victor Oswaldo, whose often restrained touch is explained by his years spent cooking in Latin American resorts prior to his Toronto debut, really comes into his own with Homestyle Meatballs ($5.95), nine meaty nuggets of ground beef in a garlicky red wine gravy topped with sliced almonds.
Next up, thick and silken pan-sized Spanish omelette ($6.85) comes tiered with tissue-thin sheets of potato and onion, and a half-dozen stuffed mussels ($7.95) on the shell get topped with white-wine-fuelled tomato sauce, molten mozzarella and a startlingly sweet dollop of yellow mango purée.
Oswaldo returns to safe hotel food with stuffed mushrooms ($6.95), three barely cooked caps piled high with diced veggies in cream cheese, and stuffed pepper ($6.95), half a sweet red bell brimming with nutty ground beef and blanketed with a paprika-pink gratinée. Our nosh concludes where it likely should have begun, with a small ramekin of explosive black olives ($5.85) marinated in garlic, red chilies, black peppercorns, lemon juice and bay leaf.
Less bang than shrug, artichoke hearts ($7.95) may be fresh but taste tinned despite a token gesture of garlic. Vegetarian crepes ($6.95) - a hippie-fied julienne of carrot, leek, eggplant, celery and 'shrooms wrapped in a tortilla, sided with wimpy ratatouille - would be more at home at Fresh by Juice for Life than at a cutting-edge cantina.
But our happenstance pairing of Chorizo al Jerez ($6.95), tasty sliced sausage nipped with tarragon and brandy, with a near-cassoulet called Valencia Beans ($4.95) produces an unexpectedly delicious take on pork 'n' beans.
Oswaldo hits it out of the park with a trio of pink-centred lamb chops on the rib ($8.95) swimming in a luscious lemony sauce sweetened with pineapple chunks and Spanish paprika. They're a treat coupled with Papas à la Diabla ($3.95) - soft, spicy spuds in garlicky tomato sauce mislabelled "Parisian potatoes" on the menu - and fabulous emerald-hued spinach tossed with toasted pine nuts, sultanas, black cracked pepper and more gorgeous paprika.
Draining the last of our mojitos ($5.75), we're already scanning the remaining card anticipating our next visit.
With an Ecuadorean chef doing Spanish tapas in a nightclub named for the fourth-largest island of the Cuban archipelago and a Chinese owner with 16 years experience working for a clinical Swiss corporation, it's not unexpected that the joint's authenticity is sometimes askew.
But when Cayo Coco gets its tapas right, it's the real deal.