To say Miami's Toro Toro is the product of an ambitious game plan is an understatement. James Beard Award-nominated chef Richard Sandoval's expansive empire includes 34 eateries, with U.S. locations in California, Arizona, Colorado, New York, Virginia, and Washington, D.C. He also owns a fast-casual rotisserie chicken joint named Kokoriko in Miami's Brickell neighborhood. Internationally, Sandoval's locations include Mexico (his homeland), Qatar, and Dubai. The last is, in fact, the setting for the original Toro Toro.
Sandoval is clearly a confident businessman, the kind who owns two restaurants with names that symbolize virility and aggressiveness.
This past October, he extended his local presence past Brickell to the downtown hotel InterContinental Miami, where Toro Toro is located. This self-proclaimed pan-Latin eatery is the fourth collaboration between Sandoval and Strategic Hotels & Resorts, the group that owns the hotel. The high-rise, once known mostly for its convention center and ballrooms, underwent a $30 million renovation this past year. After three decades in the business, the once-modernist lodging aimed to reconnect with Miami's budding young, urban nightlife and dining scene. These efforts included swapping Indigo Restaurant, a hotel-operated eatery that was geared toward guests, for the newer and more alluring Toro Toro.
But my first few moments at the hotel aren't encouraging. The lobby offers an odd mishmash of gray lounge chairs, cyan lighting, and plasma TV sets. These screens roll slide shows with high-definition images of Toro Toro's vibrant fare, followed by shots showcasing the pearly whites of the gracious, well-groomed hotel staff. Despite the major expenditure, the lobby ambiance borders on gaudy.
The restaurant, located to the left of the lobby, is far more reassuring. It features sleek wooden fixtures; an expansive, elegant bar; and a handsome 110-seat dining room. It's there, at the entrance to the dining area, that Toro Toro's hostess asks for your name. She follows with a disconcerting query. "Are you a guest of the hotel?" she asks, replicating the aforementioned smile. Yes, it's a very nice smile, but those questions suggest that most diners are still guests.
After you're seated, a steaming bowl of caldo de pollo dismisses lingering thoughts about a disguised tourist trap. Served in an auburn clay pot alongside a segmented lime, the soup pairs a flavorful, smooth broth with charred morsels of shredded chicken and fresh bits of chopped chayote and tomato.
Similarly reassuring are the complimentary, unlimited offerings of pico de gallo and pandebono — the round Colombian bread composed of cornmeal, cassava starch, cheese, and eggs. It's not perfect pandebono — too greasy and sweet when paired with the acidic salsa — but the fact that it's something more than just sliced bread and butter makes it impressive.
Main dishes include predictable offerings within the broad scope of pan-Latin fare, such as buttery cachapas — thin pancakes made with sweet fresh corn that are popular in Venezuela and Colombia — with melted cheese and sweet tomato jam. Or choclo empanadas, stuffed with a saccharine hit of, again, sweet corn, ají amarillo, and mozzarella cheese. These were nearly perfect, except they are served with a chimichurri sauce that should have been more astringent to balance the corn's sweetness.
Then there are more successful plates, such as the smoked swordfish dip — a hefty pile of smoldered flesh with a thick, creamy aioli and piquant pickled chilies. The spice from the chilies perfectly counters the fatty sauce, and accompanying plantain chips add a Caribbean bite.
It's a dish that Sandoval also offers at his New York eatery, Pampano, and at the original Toro Toro in Dubai. So credit should also be awarded to chef de cuisine Rodolfo Cuadros, a graduate of Johnson & Wales University, for executing Sandoval's signature dishes. The restaurateur hires and trains staff intelligently, another mark of a savvy businessman.
Also interesting is the pan-roasted Florida grouper, which is served with a smooth boniato purée, roasted corn salsa, and tempura pickled chilies. During one of my visits, the fish was, unfortunately, irreparably overcooked. Far more enjoyable was the pepito steak sandwich — a pairing of puréed black bean, caramelized onions, fried sweet plantains, slivers of steak, and melted jack cheese, all stuffed into a hoagie roll. Indeed, steak is a forte of the restaurant, which also offers a rodizio experience of unlimited protein.
Not much can beat the combination of bread, steak, black beans, and plantains with cheese, but two desserts come close.
Carrot cake features a quenelle of house-made spicy carrot ancho sorbet with tart cream-cheese foam. Each bite of the three components (which could theoretically be called a deconstructed carrot cake, if the term deconstructed weren't so hackneyed) is delightfully balanced in flavors and textures. A cigar-shaped flourless hazelnut chocolate cake, with buttermilk ice cream and apricot compote, has a similar effect. The latter component doesn't fit within the pan-Latin theme, but the treat is too well-constructed to dispute.
If there's one benefit of the hotel setting, it's the waitstaff's hospitality. On one of my visits, the waiter was quite the comedian. When my guest and I complained about the blindingly bright lighting near our booth, he cracked a joke about it being a special seating area. "It's called the tanning booth," he quipped. A blunder in our order was forgivable: We requested salad as a side dish but received thinly cut French fries instead. They were crisp and delicious, so it mattered less.
Toro Toro also includes a bounty of cocktails, designed by bar manager Matthew Phillips, previously of the Bazaar at the SLS Hotel. There's a good negrita, with Avión Silver tequila, muddled blackberry and pineapple, lime juice, and agave nectar. It is, like many other offerings here, slightly too sweet.
Overall, the food isn't particularly unique. In Miami, toques such as Douglas Rodriguez and Norman Van Aken have been fusing and refining Latin and Caribbean cuisine for years. But it is an important addition to the budding, burgeoning downtown dining scene. Along with Van Aken's Tuyo at the Miami Culinary Institute, Ceviche 105, Zuma, DB Bistro Moderne, and a half-dozen other recently opened eateries, Sandoval's latest venture contributes to the beginning of a new epicurean city center.
Toro Toro comes to the Magic City via an experienced restaurateur, and despite the mishaps, the eatery shows potential to become an enticing option for downtowners. It's only a month old, so there's time for improvement. After a few tweaks, Miami's Toro Toro might be the beginning of something bullish downtown.