In the middle of the freakish blizzard that blew in last Friday afternoon, the word started spreading: Toro was open.
Now, Sauce doesn't usually visit a restaurant on its first night. We like to let new places work out the kinks before we waltz in and start taking notes under the table. But the much-anticipated South End tapas bar, which had originally been scheduled to make its debut in mid-November, was too hard to resist. For weeks we'd been craving the salty fried chili peppers we'd heard about, imagining the stream of sparkling cava pouring into our mouths at arm's length, so when we heard the news, we braved the slush- and ice-encrusted roads and headed to Washington Street.
We weren't the only ones. The place was buzzing, and we squeezed into one of the few remaining tables along the wall. The air was thick with smoke and Spanish-flavored music, and chefs were hard at work in the open kitchen near the fireplace, where baguettes were warming near the flames. Exposed brick walls and wooden beams give the former meat market the hip, spare feel of a renovated loft, and two tall butcher block tables offer communal seating in the middle of the room.
The first order of business was cava, served in a beautiful glass carafe called a porron. The porron-savvy among us put the long, narrow spout near his lips, tipped the container up, and started pouring the crisp Spanish wine into his mouth, slowly moving the container away from him as he went. All heads swiveled our way as the arc of cava grew longer as he went. By the end of the night, the fronts of our shirts were damp with wine, and our resident expert had inspired several rounds of applause.
The fried peppers were all we'd hoped they would be: nicely salty chili peppers that left a pleasant warmth in the mouth. The pan con tomate, crisped bread liberally rubbed with tomato, garlic, and olive oil, was like a taste of summer, and we couldn't stop sopping up the aioli and spicy tomato sauce that went with the fried potatoes in our order of patatas bravas.
We could go on and on about the meltingly soft braised veal cheeks with prunes served in a mini cast-iron cocotte; smoky, sticky duck drumettes with tangy kumquats and a spicy peach slice; pungent whole red shrimp; soft triangles of egg and potato omelet. Oops, we did go on, didn't we?
Because the final health inspection didn't take place until that afternoon, the food was started at Clio, another of owner Ken Oringer's restaurants, and chef John Critchley made three trips back and forth through the blinding snow to bring it all to Toro. Not surprisingly, even with a limited menu, the restaurant ran out of a few things. The big mystery of the night was whether we had ordered the grilled corn in time. Would we get it, or was it gone? Nobody seemed to know for sure. Sadly, it never arrived, although it did show up on our bill.
As to be expected on opening night, there were a few missteps. A server kept trying to give us the dishes for the table next to us, and we had a hard time finding someone to take our second round of orders. The smoke eventually cleared, only to be replaced by a chilly draft from an open door -- but this had the unintentionally cozy effect of luring several couples to sit in front of the fireplace to keep warm.
By the time we finished our churros with dark, chili-infused chocolate and crema catalana topped with pine nut clusters, the cava was being passed around the bar, and we were already planning our next trip back.
Toro 1704 Washington St., 617-536-4300. Small plates: $3-$14; entrees for two: $26-$38.