Food for Thought: Toro Takes Manhattan, and Is Here to Stay

Jamie Bissonnette.

Jamie Bissonnette.

In late September, chef Jamie Bissonnette stood nervous as hell at some East Village bar. “I can’t take it,” he said of opening Toro, his first New York restaurant. “We open tomorrow. It took over two years. It’s all on the line now—my life, career, everything.”

Three months later, on New Year’s Eve of all days, The New York Times’ food critic, Pete Wells, dropped a wonderful two-star review on Toro, writing, “How can a menu this big have so many excellent dishes and so few disappointments?” 

For the first time since the baked bean, a Boston food import had won over the city—and Mr. Bissonnette could finally relax, which is exactly what I found him doing at 2:30 a.m. on Jan. 1. Along with his partner, chef Ken Oringer, with whom Mr. Bissonnette teamed up on the original Toro in Boston (they also own the Hub’s Coppa), the tattooed chef celebrated the Times triumph at Backbar, the recently opened, unofficial Toro clubhouse. 

“I’ve waited 19 years for this moment. I can’t even believe this is happening,” the 36-year-old Mr. Bissonnette said. Mr. Oringer, a blur of dancing, high-fiving, drinking and hugging, calmed down enough to say, “We were scared shitless to open a restaurant in New York, but we had this great opportunity to cook alongside our buddies and all these amazing chefs we admire.”

While Backbar—which is the backroom of Toro—is not actually part of Toro, as their P.R. firm made clear (though they also share a beverage director, Caitlin Doonan), the two venues co-hosted a wild New Year’s Eve party. Lindsay Lohan was there with her fam: brother Mike Lohan and pseudo-brother Gavin Doyle. It was an atypical Meatpacking party, where well-known food writers mingled with a posse of chic Phish heads (possibly the only ones on Earth), who showed up after ringing in 2014 at MSG. As for the rumors that Ms. Lohan and I were dating at Art Basel, when I was wrongly accused of beating up Paris Hilton’s little brother on her behalf, she squashed all that. “No!” she yelled. 

Earlier in the day, before the Times review hit, Toro “felt like Fenway before a game,” as bartender John Liam Policastro put it, when I met him at the host stand. I followed him down a wide stairway into a bright hallway, at the end of which stood Mr. Bissonnette, in his chef whites and black-frame glasses, yelling things like “pork belly!” and “urchin!” from his station at the helm of the kitchen. 

In a neighborhood of serious doormen, pointless lighting schemes and clubs so packed your drink spills every time a new song comes on, this subterranean prep kitchen seemed the ultimate low-key den to drink tall boys and talk about industry life. Mr. Bissonnette doesn’t even know if he likes New York yet: “I haven’t seen any of it working down here,” he confided. 

Ken Oringer.

Ken Oringer.

Mssrs. Bissonnette and Oringer’s business partners, Will Manati and Doug Jacob, thought to bring Toro to New York a few years ago, when they were opening Willow Road, an upscale pub in the same building. (The building is also home to Collichio & Sons and Del Posto.) With a total of nine Times stars under one roof, it’s the second most acclaimed dining address in America, after the Time Warner Center.

As the night wound down at Backbar, Mr. Policastro recalled the best memory of Toro’s short life: “One of the most surreal moments I have witnessed here would have to be sitting with Ken and Jamie as Mario Batali and The Edge had a few after-hours drinks. The Edge was quizzing Jamie on how he became a chef.”  

“We’ve been really lucky,” Mr. Oringer said. “Since opening, we’ve cooked for some of our idols, and it’s really cool.”

It has been nearly a decade now since that old Boston slogan “maybe next year” has been retired, when the Red Sox won the World Series in 2004. Thankfully, for Toro and Backbar both, 2014 already looks to be a winner.