Toro is a Barcelona-inspired tapas restaurant with an eclectic menu that focuses on both traditional and modern tapas; regional Spanish flavours and techniques combined with local fresh ingredients
It is now 20 years since Chef Ken Oringer opened his first restaurant Clio in the heart of Boston. With a contemporary French-American menu it quickly established itself as one of the finest restaurants in the United States, earning recognition from a host of established and respected publications. Yet despite the success that came his way, the New Jersey native was determined to take his food in a different direction.
Growing up in New York City, Oringer had always drawn inspiration from his surroundings. Whether visiting Little Italy or China Town, his eyes were opened to various cooking methods and different ingredients. But it was when he began to travel abroad that new ideas took shape and his whole viewpoint on the culinary arts changed.
“I spent a lot of time in Asia and sushi became a big inspiration for me,” explains Oringer. “Once you go to Tokyo you see the artistry and the tradition. Then you go and see the fish at the Tsukiji market and it was unlike anything I had ever seen before. I didn’t even eat seafood until I was in college so it was very inspiring.”
Emboldened by his visits to Asia, Oringer opened Uni in the lounge of Clio. The inventive sashimi bar offered the freshest seafood, but it was viewed as a huge gamble.
“Oh absolutely,” states Oringer. “A white guy from New Jersey opening a sushi bar in Boston, everyone was like ‘what the hell is going on here?’. But I’ve always been a been a rule breaker, ever since I was a kid. My parents didn’t like those days but it is all about having fun and being creative. And that has always fuelled me.
“One of the reasons I decided to open up Uni was that sushi was the same in so many restaurants. It was all very traditional. I knew I couldn’t compete with their skill level but I could compete in terms of breaking the rules and being creative. It allowed me to use barnacles from Spain, which they would never do. I’m always looking to do things a little bit different.”
Diners and critics alike were won over by Oringer’s innovative and creative interpretations of Japanese fusion cuisine, but another trip across the Atlantic would soon see him inspired by another form of dining.
“I was lucky enough that from Clio I spent time with Ferran Adrià at his laboratory at El Bulli before he became famous,” says Oringer. “One time I was in Barcelona and I was sitting with Ferran and his brother Albert at these tapas bars and it was so much fun that I found myself wondering why no one ate like this in New York and Boston.
“Everyone was sharing and telling stories and I thought ‘this is the way people need to eat’. So I came back and decided I had to open a tapas bar, and that kind of changed my whole philosophy about restaurants. Every restaurant I have opened since then has been about small plates and people sitting around, breaking bread together and sharing multiple dishes.”
The resulting restaurant was Toro, opened in Boston’s South End, a Barcelona-inspired tapas restaurant that saw Oringer partner with award-winning chef Jamie Bissonnette. Together the duo produced an eclectic menu that focused on both traditional and modern tapas. Regional Spanish flavours and techniques were combined with local fresh ingredients and the restaurant soon received critical acclaim.
The Toro concept was expanded to New York City, Bangkok, Thailand and is now open in Dubai. Located in City Walk’s licensed area, The Square, Oringer and Bissonnette spent the better part of a month in Dubai in order to learn more about local ingredients and integrate them into their signature dishes.
“When Jamie and I started driving around we couldn’t believe how many restaurants were here,” says Oringer. “There is something like 9,000 restaurants in Dubai, whereas New York has around 13,000, yet the population is tiny in comparison. So clearly people in Dubai love to eat out and we really witnessed that love of food.
“We had already done plenty of research as well and we knew that Zuma had been doing well for a number of years. Being in the middle of the desert I did wonder about ingredients, but people are obsessed with food and I loved going to the spice souk and the fish market. It’s amazing what you can get here. I was at the souk the other day and ended up buying black lime and incorporating that into one of our dishes that you won’t be able to get in New York.”
With Oringer having to spend much of his time between his numerous restaurants, he has been working closely with Oscar Poquet while in Dubai. The Spanish chef has worked across the UAE for several years and is the Head Chef of Toro & KO Dubai.
Both Poquet, a passionate and energetic presence in the kitchen, and Oringer have not only spent months deliberating over the menu, but have made sure that the restaurant has the perfect atmosphere to match the food.
“It’s a real energy,” explains Oringer. “In New York and Boston we have hip-hop music playing and people are enjoying the evening.
It’s like when you are at a tapas bar in Barcelona or Madrid, the volume is always up and its infectious. And that is what we want to do in Dubai.
“So as the night goes on we encourage people to have fun. And the same with our staff, at a lot of restaurants they can become robotic, but we encourage them to have personality and a lot of fun as that is what Spain is all about.
“And in Oscar we have found the perfect guy. We brought him to the States a couple of months ago and he came to New York and Boston and spent some time cooking and going out with us. We hit it off so well and we loved his energy and creativity. We came back and developed the menu together and he took the reigns and put his touch on everything.”
As well as incorporating local ingredients and creating updated dishes, Toro & KO Dubai will feature numerous signature plates that have received acclaim in America. Sea urchin caviar and roasted bone marrow with beef cheek marmalade will be available, as will several of the most popular dishes.
Yet despite the menu being so well received in America, and the success of Clio, Uni and Little Donkey, Oringer admits that he still worries when opening a new restaurant. “You get more confident with each restaurant but even now I still have the fear the night before we open that no one will come in.
“I have that anxiety but it is nice to have that nervousness. There is no feeling like it. It is an adrenaline rush and that is why so many chefs like opening restaurants. The stress, the pressure; working 20 hour days. But it ends with everyone coming together and having great nights.”
That pressure is what Oringer craves. He readily admits that he thinks about food 24/7 and is always looking to create new dishes and take existing ones to a new level. And having started out in traditional fine dining, he has now evolved and loves nothing more than enjoying dozens of small course with his friends and family.
“My palette has definitely changed and it gets bored very quickly,” adds Oringer. “If I am eating a 400-gram steak, after five bites I am craving a different flavour or texture. I now like to go out and have fun and be flexible. My tastes have definitely changed.”
Fortunately, this change has led to the success of Toro & KO, and now Dubai can sample the dishes that Oringer so clearly adores.
WORDS: ADRIAN BACK. PHOTOS: ELLIOT HANEY