Running with the bull
The Hodges Bend crew ups the ante with Torero
Costillas - chili-rubbed baby back ribs served with fried plantains
At 5 o’clock on a given Thursday, cars used to vacate downtown, not flock to it. This particular Thursday, at 5:03, there wasn’t a parking space to be had west of Main. Construction took up a lot of it, and I’d forgotten about Coldplay at the BOK. I drove east on 1st, turned up Cincinnati, and pulled into the first space I found, beneath the PAC marquee pitching “Heathers: The Musical.” I walked the four blocks to Cheyenne under a black canopy of cloud threatening to clap any minute.
“Sorry,” I said, finally meeting Noah Bush at his new bar, Torero—the one with the bull’s bust in back of it. “I forgot about Coldplay.”
“Yeah, it kind of slipped my mind,” he said. “You going?”
“Nah,” I said.
“Yeah,” he said. “After that first album. Maybe.”
The bull’s name was Mataco. His tormentor was Jose Luis Moreno, who dispatched the four-year-old beast to that great pasture in the sky on October 4, 2009 at Madrid’s Plaza de Toros de Las Ventas. During the autumn feria, no less.
“It’s a little morbid, maybe,” Bush said, “but I love the tradition.”
Mataco now lords regally over a row of beer taps and waiting vessels. His nostrils flare, as if discerning tasting notes.
Five or six years ago, when Noah Bush was bartender at Doc’s Wine & Food, making his own bitters and tonics, he and Ian Van Anglen, back in the kitchen, dreamed of tapas.
“We always talked about how awesome it would be to have a traditional tapas bar in Tulsa,” Bush said. “This obviously isn’t a traditional tapas bar.”
A year and half ago, Bush, Van Anglen and John Gaberino—The Restaurant Group Without a Name, responsible for Hodges Bend, The Parish and Saturn Room—had their eyes set on a space on the Denver side of One Place, and an idea to do a high-end gastro pub. Then came Elgin Park and Roosevelt’s.
“We thought, let’s make it completely different,” Bush said. “Which is when we revisited our tapas bar idea from way back.”
The little tapas bars of Barcelona and Bilbao, San Sebastian and Seville, where you sit at the counter (usually stand, often two and three deep), under a canopy of ancient hams, and order pintxos of olives, fish and meatballs and toss them back with cheap tinto? Yeah, this ain’t that.
“We liked the idea,” said Bush, “but we were going for something more updated.”
Enter small plates. In my experience, Tulsa is a big-plate town, with mounds of meat and piles of taters and something green for show. With horns out, Torero is bucking that trend.
“We’re not at David L. Moss, guarding our food and shoveling it down our throats,” Bush said. “Small plates are small plates because everybody wants to try something different. A fork goes across the table now more than people deciding on which three different courses they’re going to order.”Only with sushi does the concept of multiple dishes seem to remotely work. On Torero’s deliciously intimidating menu, sushi appears under the “Ceviche” column as tiradito, a Peruvian dish.
“The largest population of Japanese peoples outside of Japan is Peru,” Bush explained. “The names might be different but the flavors are familiar. How’s your cocktail by the way?”
I’d ordered the Armonia, a summery sip compiled of gin, manzanilla sherry, apricot brandy, grenadine and sour orange. Armonia=Harmony.
“You go to a sushi joint and order a Geisha Girl,” Bush went on, “you don’t care what it’s named, you just order it because you read the ingredients. We’ve given the dishes their traditional names, then we list the ingredients in gringo so everybody can understand it.”
At Torero, best to go with your gut. When our party of four went rampaging through the menu in August, before the menu was even complete, we tried to touch all the bases, starting with a hot cazuela of Provoleta (a bruschetta of grilled bread—black and golden-brown, like a pasture on fire—chimichurri and toasted Provolone) and a grilled salad of baby gem and prosciutto that went so fast I didn’t get a bite.
The Matambre—a thin cut of grilled beef favored all over South America—offered a charred carrot, fruity olives, perfectly soft-boiled egg, and a few petit fingers of flatiron (not even a hand’s worth), all damp with a paintbrush or two of chimichurri.
I liked the sprinkling of cabrales blue on the crispy patatas bravas. I could have eaten more of the goat arepas and picadillo empanadas. Like, $100 more.
I almost forget to order the duck leg. After flagging the server, it arrived in minutes: slow-cooked and falling off the bone, and nestled on a bed of pepita-tomatillo mole. Tasty, as I recall; I got two bites. The duck is a hair-raising $25. I’ve paid that for the whole Donald.
With Torero, it’s as if the portions went one way and the price the other. Is minimalism the cost of eating well? Perhaps. Or maybe it’s recompense. I’m of the lost generation that grew up on cheap food. Only now are we realizing the unsustainability of that. Like Jose Moreno, we’d been getting away with murder.
“We’re not trying to rip you off,” Bush said. “This is a solid product that we care about. Frankly, you should be OK with forking over just a little bit extra just to know that we’ve taken the time and care to procure the food and drink.”
A lot of bars these days tout their curation, but Torero must be the Prado of bars, with its vault of Chilean wines and an arsenal of lagers and ales (40 taps, dozens more in bottle). There’s even a modest sherry list, a nod to the tapas bars of team Torero’s dreams. Of course, it wouldn’t be a Noah Bush bar without a menu of thoughtful cocktails, including a pisco sour that’s a masterpiece to behold.
Bush talks about wanting to create the feel of a “big city” restaurant, one of those spots we all experience on the road when the mood is high, the tab on somebody else, and the hotel within walking distance. Truth is, I’m not sure if there’s been a more ambitious restaurant in Tulsa history. A lot of Torero’s menu you’ve eaten all over town, but probably not this exceptional, and certainly not under one roof.
“It’s an underdeveloped side, as far as restaurants and bars,” Bush said of their near-to-BOK location. “Mixco’s doing a great job, but I really wanted to see how a restaurant would do over here.”
He speaks excitedly about the two new hotels on their way to the area, both without bars or restaurants. He’s banking on everybody from Amy Grant to Trans-Siberian Orchestra. He wants to do charcuterie, he said, if the health department will come out of the stone ages. But will it be enough?
“Who knows?” he said with a shrug. “We’ll all see, won’t we?”
Pisco: a grape spirit of Peru and Chile, or Chile and Peru, depending on who you ask. The grappa of the Americas.
Chimichurri: the cilantro-parsley-oregano sauce favored on grilled meat in Argentina and Uruguay.
Aji verde: a Peruvian green-chile sauce.
Medianoche: “midnight,” for the popular hour this famed Cuban sandwich is consumed by the club-going set.
Prosciutto: legendary Italian ham, cured over months, sometimes years, with salt and mountain air.
Criolla: a South American pepper-and-onion (“creole”-style) salsa.
Huitlacoche: Wiki calls it “corn smut;” a delicacy in Mexico, Ustilago maydis is an edible plant fungus. The Mayans dug it on omelets.
Mignonette: the classic French shallot-vinegar-pepper sauce for oysters.
Leche de tigre: literally, “tiger milk;” incidentally, the debut album from Belle & Sebastian; practically, a Peruvian citrus-and-spice ceviche marinade.
Picadillo: a thick stew of ground beef and tomatoes, raisins and olives.
Torero: a man (torera for a woman) who fights a bull.
Matador: one who kills it.
For more from Mark, read his story on almost winning an Irish pub.