A few hours after returning home from dinner at Toroso, in Kennebunk, I had a vivid, Technicolor dream about it. Maybe it was the tart and tropical, margarita-like Smoke on the Water cocktail ($12), or maybe it was the drama of inching home on the highway in the season’s first white-out snow conditions that set my brain racing full tilt right before sleep. Regardless of the cause, when I woke in the morning, I couldn’t stop laughing at one lingering dream image: being greeted and seated by a chatty octopus with the head of a bull.

My overactive imagination was not completely responsible, either. Toroso’s logo features this same fantasy hybrid, which executive chef and owner Shannon Bard calls “The Octobull,” designed to reference both the seafood served in restaurants across Spain, as well as the brawny, iconic bovine that has become shorthand for the country’s very identity.

The name of the restaurant, too, means something along the lines of “strong, like a bull,” and captures the boldness that Bard aspires to in the restaurant’s menu of mostly Iberian-inspired small plates.

Toroso has been in the works for quite a while. It started in 2011, when Bard, who also runs Portland’s Zapoteca, completed a five-week stage (short for stagiere, a brief kitchen internship) at Arzak – a modern, three-Michelin-starred restaurant in Basque country. But it wasn’t until this past spring, after traveling to Seville, that she put her ideas into a coherent perspective, just in time for Toroso’s opening in late July.

Bard’s adventurous approach is built on the primacy of flavor above all else and rejects geographic restrictions in its interpretation of tapas. “Spanish food is not something that’s really defined by borders, so it gives me room to be creative,” she said.

One example is her golden, charred cauliflower with garbanzos and green beans ($8), served in a nutty, garlicky romesco aioli – very traditionally Spanish. But the cauliflower itself is dusted with an aromatic Moroccan ras el hanout, a bewitching blend of cumin, cinnamon, ginger and coriander that reflects the North African influence on cooking in southern Spain.

That same Moorish spice blend also appears, perhaps excessively, in the otherwise excellent cod loin with clams ($25), one of Toroso’s three entrée-sized plates. Here, it infuses a stew of chickpeas, tomatoes and baby kale, made loose by the liquor that weeps out as the clams open on the stove.

As agnostic as Bard is to the culinary boundaries of place, she is equally so with her approach to flavors.

In some dishes, she interjects unexpected components, like savory cured egg yolk that she grates like hard cheese over a conical stack of slick, plancha-seared asparagus ($9). As I dipped tender, grill-marked green asparagus spears (the menu lists both white and green as part of the dish, but we were served only green) into hazelnut romesco and dabbed shavings of cured egg yolk off the plate, I could not focus on my conversation. All I could do was eat.

Toroso’s flavor risks do not always pay off this well. A dish of crispy, milk-soaked fried eggplant slices, drizzled Andalusian-style with honey ($9), was far too sweet and heavy-handedly sprinkled with finely chopped rosemary. Plated on slate with a single marigold and a lost-looking amaranth flower loitering beneath three overlapping discs of eggplant, the dish resembled a strange, Henry Darger-esque reimagining of the Olympic rings.

Bard’s version of pan con tomate ($6), probably the quintessential tapa – toasted crusty bread rubbed with garlic, fresh tomato, and topped with olive oil and salt – fell similarly short. This time, because of omissions.

Paella de Mariscos made with calasparra rice, Spanish sofrito, chorizo, lobster, mussels, manilla clams, shrimp, arugula, garlic parsley oil and lemon wedges at Toroso in Kennebunk.

Paella de Mariscos made with calasparra rice, Spanish sofrito, chorizo, lobster, mussels, manilla clams, shrimp, arugula, garlic parsley oil and lemon wedges at Toroso. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

 

Toroso’s skimpy version ditches the garlic and literally whittles the foundation of the dish, the bread, down to a cracker-like thinness. The Backyard Farms tomatoes puddled on top in a sweet, chunky gel were excellent, even in the middle of winter, but they bled into the meager slices of toast, making them soggy seconds after they were set down on the table.

Seasoning issues also crop up in a few places across the menu at Toroso. Some dishes, such as the previously mentioned cauliflower and the honeyed eggplant, were heavily oversalted. Others, like the blistered shishitos/Padróns, referred to on the menu as “Moorish style peppers” ($5), were undersalted to the point of oily blandness. At a tapas restaurant, that’s a missed opportunity, because savory, occasionally fiery Padróns are meant to trigger a thirst for another glass of wine, something Toroso offers in abundance.

Thanks to a temperature-controlled, vacuum wine dispensing system set up in its classically Spanish tiled bar, Toroso is able to pour more than two dozen wines by the glass.

Most are, as you might expect, Spanish, like a ripe and citrusy Marques de Caceres rose ($15). The few exceptions include a gooseberry-tart Whitehaven Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand ($13), and an award-winning Stags Leap Artemis Cabernet Sauvignon from California ($10 for 2 oz., $16 for 4 oz.), which is nearly impossible to find by the glass elsewhere.

And if the prices for these glasses seems high, don’t be put off: Toroso’s pours are lavish.

Albondigas de cordero, a hot tapas plate of seared lamb meatballs served in oxtail jus and sherry cream at Toroso.

Albondigas de cordero, a hot tapas plate of seared lamb meatballs served in oxtail jus and sherry cream. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

There are also two sangrias ($10 for a glass/$20 for a pitcher) on the menu, including a white version made with pear and cucumber, and a red, flavored with orange and thyme – a profile well suited to partner with rich dishes like the staggeringly pleasurable lamb albondigas ($11). Plated uncomplicatedly, with three tender meatballs in a shallow ladling of sauce made from sweet sherry and foie gras, this plate perhaps best showcases Toroso’s ability to present audacious, sophisticated flavors in an elegantly simple format.

“The sherry and the foie add a little bit of maturity to the dish. It’s an adult version of the meatball,” Bard explained.

Similarly, the citrus-infused Crema Catalana ($9) – a largely faithful rendition of Spanish crème brûlée – looked unassuming when it arrived. That is, until I took my first bite, and brazen curlicues of anise and clove twined their way down my tongue, spreading like ivy across my entire mouth. This, I thought, was a dessert with flavors to remember.

I wonder now if it wasn’t those lingering hints of spice that made me fall asleep, only to dream of dinner with a garrulous Octobull.

Andrew Ross has written about food in the United Kingdom and in New York, where he co-founded NYCnosh, a food website. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is an Internet researcher and higher education consultant. Contact him at [email protected] or on Twitter @AndrewRossME.