Dating all the way back to Greek mythology there has always been the idea of the cornucopia – the horn of plenty that refills an endless bounty of the best food and drink as soon as it is consumed.
Saturday night a group of my friends and I came as close to enjoying that bounty as anyone ever has. For four and half hours we indulged in an array of foods, sherries, wines and cocktails like none of us had ever seen. We walked away in agreement that we had just enjoyed a meal unlikely to ever be topped.
Before I get to the details of Saturday night, here’s a little back story on how this amazing evening came to be …
Let me preface this by saying, I never win contests. Never. I honestly can’t think of one drawing or entry-based contest I’ve ever won. So when I decided I was going to win a contest Google was holding here in Portland I understood my friends’ skepticism. The contest, called Hotpot Jackpot, aimed to promote Google’s new place rating application by getting entrants to rate local businesses and places. Normally I would have skipped over the ad but when I saw that the grand prize was a $3000 dinner for the winner and 10 friends and that it was restricted to people within 50 miles of Portland I decided it was a worthy gamble. Long story short, I rated a bunch of places, wrote a bunch of reviews, got some friends to do the same and I won.
Fast forward to 7:15 p.m. last Saturday night. Me and a few friends arrived slightly early for our 7:30 reservation at Toro Bravo in NE Portland only to find our long table ready and a host of smiling, friendly waitresses ready to start plying us with food and alcohol.
For those who haven’t been, Toro Bravo is one of Portland’s true culinary treasures. They serve Spanish tapas (small plates), often with a Northwest twist. With a lengthy menu that changes on a daily basis and some of the tastiest cocktails in town, it has earned the lengthy lines that usually queue prior to its opening. With everything served family style by one of the city’s most efficient and friendly staffs, dining at Toro Bravo is like sitting down to dinner at your friend’s house if they served the most mouthwatering and creative food.
Even though we were waiting for half of our party, our waitress brought out two bottles of champagne on ice, a couple of dishes of salted almonds, some pickled vegetables and olives and some delicious bread with marinated sheep’s cheese that can best be described as tasting like the creamiest butter you’ve ever had. She also brought out two very different sherries, pouring some for each of us.
By the time everyone had arrived a little after 7:30 the table was literally overflowing with dishes of food and glasses for our many drinks. Personally, I was working on a glass of champagne, two sherries and a limoncello cocktail. Insanity had set in and we had barely started.
Bacon wrapped dates, the most luscious sherry chicken liver mousse ever made, foie gras-stuffed prunes, charred bread with nettles and fromage blanc – the food kept coming and coming. Sitting with my back to the kitchen I could hear the head chef call out the order to fire the dishes and each time he did I wondered how we’d make room on our already crowded table (or in our rapidly getting stuffed stomachs). But every dish was so delicious and so perfectly paired with its companions and drinks that the plates seemed to empty almost as quickly as they came.
The next round of dishes included two preparations of anchovies (both delicious), octopus on olive oil-poached potatoes and a refreshing green salad. If that sounds like a lot, it was. But I never heard anyone claim to be full or pass up trying a dish.
With all the smaller plates out of the way, our server started to bring out the heavy guns. Perfectly seared scallops in a flavorful romesco sauce, squid ink pasta and butternut squash stew that tasted like it had been seasoned by India’s finest curry-maker. I think this is about when the looks of disbelief started popping up. The wide-eyed, jaw-dropped, “are you kidding me?” look became the norm as our hostess brought out crab fideos, platters of smoked coppa steak topped with an amazing peanut-y sauce and wilted spinach with raisins. Someone described the fideos as “the best hamburger helper EVER” and I’d have to agree. The dish consisted of tiny elbow macaroni served with spicy sausage and crab legs, seasoned much like you’d season paella.
At this point I was done. I’d been pacing myself. Pounding water to offset the copious amount of alcohol and eating everything, just not a ton of anything. Even with all my preparation (I’d mostly fasted for two days) I had reached the breaking point.
Then they brought the suckling pig. The kitchen had specially prepared a whole suckling pig, stuffing the pig with house made sausage and, I believe, the loin and laid out slices around scrumptious looking potatoes. It looked like the kind of platter you see set before the king at banquets in medieval movies – only better.
Our table just started laughing.
We’d been eating and drinking for about three hours. Most of us had probably eaten more than we’d eaten in one sitting in recent memory and now, one of the most immaculate looking platters of food we’d ever seen was sitting there, almost mocking us, challenging us to eat it.
So we did. And it was every bit as good as it looked if not better. Within minutes one of my friends was tearing into the head, ravishing the ears for the last bits of meat.
Unbelievably, the meal didn’t stop there. A cheese course was followed by a panoply of desserts, including caramel panna cotta, chocolate cake, churros and drinking chocolate (which was drunk), chocolate almonds and baked apples and rhubarb.
To be honest, I remember ordering a second panna cotta and that’s about it. I can vaguely see the multitude of plates on the table but I was so full and so overwhelmed that the rest is a blur.
A little before midnight we threw in the towel. Because our server had so diligently cleared everything, our table showed little sign of the gluttonous proceedings it had endured. Only our distended waistlines and contented looks hinted at what had gone down.
I’m pretty confident saying that no dinner will ever match Saturday night. In addition to loving every bite I ate and every sip I drank, what really made the night special was sharing it with so many great friends. Despite many of my friends not knowing each other, everywhere I looked they were laughing and having a great time. Every time I looked around I felt lucky to have the opportunity I was having and to have such amazing friends.
Special thanks to all my friends, Vanessa at Google, Google and Renee, John and all the Toro Bravo staff. Also, thanks to Harv for the photos.