Amid the myriad chains and franchises that are populating the area around the Orlando Eye attraction, an independent restaurant is a welcome find. And that it offers very good food and a fun dining experience makes it all the better.
Tapa Toro comes to us from Vassilis and Katerina Coumbaros, who also own Taverna Opa at nearby Pointe Orlando, one of my favorite Tourist World recommendations. Opa, of course, is the Greek restaurant where every evening is a raucous party of napkins tossed in the air to buoyant balalaika music and belly dancing atop the tables.
At Tapa Toro the theme is Spanish and the music flamenco, and here the napkins stay in the lap and the clacking heels of the dancers punish only the floor.
The menu is under the direction of executive chef Wendy Lopez and features, as you might expect from the name, an array of tapas (and perhaps a little bit of bull). But paella is a signature item and is the focus of a 12-seat food bar known as the paella pit, which overlooks the cooking station where five or six pans of the rice dish may simmering at one time over the two steel-drumlike stoves.
I was invited to sit at the paella pit during a recent media dinner at the restaurant. We started with an array of tapas and a Queso y Chorizo platter that also included some of the Iberico ham sliced from the black-footed leg in front of us.
Hot tapas included the Coliflor de Leon, with roasted cauliflowerets, pea puree and salty capers.
Crispy pork belly had a wonderful almost crackling-like exterior, served with spicy arugula leaves and a mild carrot puree, with a bit of local honey for a sweet note.
We shared the Mariscos Paella, with clams, mussels, meaty shrimp, hunks of spicy chorizo and peppers in the saffron scented rice.
For dessert, Crema Catalana — what else? — a beautifully executed brulee topped with orange slices (Valencias?).
The paella pit sits between the bar area, which has several high-top tables for those who wish to dine there, and the main dining room, a large and open space with a high ceiling and walls covered with typical Spanish style art (though some of those “paintings” might surprise you by suddenly coming alive).
Service was attentive and friendly. That’s important given that Tapa Toro is next to one of the area’s most visible, non-theme-park attractions. They may come for the Orlando Eye, but their other senses will be well served at Tapa Toro.
Tapa Toro is at 8441 International Drive, Orlando. It is open for lunch and dinner daily (though somehow that information is missing from the website). Note: Free parking is available in the nearby garage. The phone number is 407-226-2929.
Tapa Toro is celebrating its private grand opening Wednesday, August 19, and will be open by invitation only that evening.