Torito 276 Augusta, at College, 647-436-5874. Complete meals for $50 per person, including all taxes, tip and a glass of wine. Average tapa $8. Open Tuesday to Saturday 6 to 10:30 pm; bar till close. Closed Sunday, Monday and holidays. Licensed. Access: five steps at door, washrooms on same floor. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNN
Every savvy restaurateur knows that there's no money to be made selling food. Consider the overhead. At 20 bucks a main, you're virtually giving the stuff away. But jack up a $12 bottle of cheap LCBO plonk to $35 and the profit is pure gravy.
Which explains why they're hyping tapas - the bite-size snacks meant to be shared among friends over several bottles of pricey vino - as the biggest thing to shake up Toronto's culinary scene since the gourmet burrito. Sadly, most get it wrong. But Torito, that new tapas bar at the top of Kensington Market, hits the bullseye.
You'll likely remember the compact cantina's co-owner, Veronica Laudes, from Latitude, the Latin-flavoured wine bar she launched on Harbord back in 98. Before that, she was the bartender at Trevor Berryman's defunct Xango in the theatre district, where Torito's terrific chef, Carlos Hernandez, helmed the kitchen. Third partner Luis Iglesias did time at the venerable El Cid.
Clearly, these kids didn't just jump on some passing trendy bandwagon.
The warm, inviting room's been modestly decorated with bullfight posters, and the plain wooden tables and unupholstered benches might seem to suit a backyard barbecue better than a lingering meal. But despite the discomfort, once the parade of plates begins, you'll never want to leave, much to the consternation of the crowd eying your no-reservations table from the growing queue at the door.
In Spain, tapas fill the long stretch between lunch and dinner, both traditionally served late in the day. Here in Hogtown, 7 pm means supper, as the hungry horde tonight agree. Our server explains the drill, recommending that our party of four order two dishes each to start, and take it from there.
We begin the tapeo ritual with a sensational salad built on a bed of aromatic arugula dressed with shards of smooth manchego, crunchy toasted almonds and a tart quince vinaigrette. It's followed by Spanish tortilla, an eggy potato and onion omelette crowned with a topknot of watercress. Four spoons quickly lay waste to the next tapa, a gorgeous winter soup of smoky chestnuts and spicy chorizo garnished with coriander (all $6).
Shrimp al ajillo ($11) is one of Spain's signature dishes, and Torito's interpretation is a stunner, a pink, buttery pile of grilled butterflied shellfish deliciously drenched with garlic. A charred cross-section of Japanese eggplant gets sandwiched between two slices of tasty lamb meat loaf ladled with a pulpy tomato sauce thickened with ground almonds ($9).
Both plate-lickable sauces demand bread. But other than the four slices of chewy Riviera baguette served with a small wedge of queso fresca and a handful of green and black olives, pickled onion and miniature cornichons ($3), none's on offer though it does materialize as tiny crouton crisps in Torito's Andalusian spinach and chickpea stew ($7).
There's little doughy filler to be found in Hernandez's outstanding crab cakes ($10), a pair of puck-sized croquettes dolloped with lemony parsley aoli. Splayed over syrupy-sweet calabaza pumpkin mash, succulent oven-roasted quail glazed with pomegranate is their equal ($11). And by combining tender slices of tongue with delicate beef cheeks slow-braised with mirepoix and baby potato ($9), chef Hernandez makes an unintentional pun.
We wrap things up with fresh honey-kissed figs coupled with Cabrales blue cheese, and an otherwise exemplary apple-banana gratin (all desserts $6) scented with bittersweet cassia that gives the cookie-crusted cylinder the unfortunate taste of bacon. Draining the last of our Stellas ($5.50) and Sangre de Toro red - appropriately "blood of the bull" ($7 glass/$30 bottle) - the gang are already making plans for a return visit, especially once Laudes and company double their capacity with a second basement space and two patios come spring.
Torito translates from the Spanish as "little bull." Is there a better way to describe downtown's most unpretentious boite?