Taipei Diary. El Toro.
My parents have been talking about El Toro for a while now, a small Spanish restaurant in Taipei whose chef/owner is a Spaniard who married a Taiwanese woman and moved here. It seems silly to come to Taipei and eat Spanish food, but then good food is good food, no matter what. I have eaten amazing French and Italian food all over Asia, including a perfect spaghetti al pomodoro at an Italian/Lao-run ecolodge in Laos last fall. I had high hopes for El Toro. I heard my dad discussing "black rice with squid" on the phone.
We head to the restaurant, the three of us plus two of my dad's colleagues visiting from the States. It's a small place, hidden away on a back alley, with a room at street level that looks into the glass-fronted kitchen, and a slightly more spacious room downstairs, which is where we sit. My dad brings his own wine, an unopened bottle and a partly drunk bottle already decanted. The chef comes down to talk to my parents about the menu, and throws around suggestions. We settle on the aforementioned black rice, blood sausage, red prawns with rice, roast leg of suckling pig, and pigeon served two ways.
First up, though, is a little snack: a little chunk of chorizo served up in a spoon and a martini gelée, complete with green olive. The chorizo is pretty tasty, but I have never had a martini, so I have no idea what to make of the gelée. Then the blood sausage shows up, and I forget about everything else. This is not your traditional blood sausage, the kind I ate in a tapas bar in Santiago de Compostela on a chilly January day some four years ago. This blood sausage is light, airy, almost soufflé-like, fried crispy on one side to give it some heft. I eat two pieces. I have never met a blood sausage I didn't like, but this one is transcendent.
Next is the red prawn, a huge, bright red shrimp resting on a bed of rice like a loose risotto. I suck out the brains, which are soft and sweet, and eat the body, which perfectly cooked, and scrape up every bite of rice, which is awfully tasty. The black rice arrives, crusty on the bottom like a good paella, the squid firm to the bite without being chewy. It is delicious. Then the pigeon two ways comes to the table, the breast seared and served almost rare, the legs and thighs and wings cooked until it almost falls off the bones, in a dark, savory sauce, with purple potatoes on the side. The rare meat is shockingly flavorful, tender and smooth; the roasted meat is more intense.
Last to arrive is the roast suckling pig, the rear leg section (including the tail) of a very small pig - it couldn't have weighed more than 20 lbs, whole. The skin cracks apart in translucent sheets like a porcine praline, more fragile than the thicker skin of an older pig. The meat is incredibly juicy, the best I've ever tasted. There is some sauce on the side, more pure pork juices, but it doesn't really need anything. It is the best damn suckling pig I have ever eaten, and I try to eat suckling pig as often as I can. Which is not very often, unfortunately. Maybe I should come back to Taipei more often, as my mother's godfather tells me. Once a year is not really enough.
We finish with a few bites of dessert, a light lemon mousse anchored with a nutty crust, a pouf of whipped cream on top. I notice a shard of chocolate that fell off the top, and when I bite into it I am met with the shock of pepper, I think, and something that tastes like those sour-sweet-salty dried plums I ate as a child. Then I have a bite of chocolate cake, still warm, with nuts and dried currants, perhaps, and the softly tart perfume of lime.
I'll be back, yes. I hope.