September 1, 2020 – A new sushi spot has splashed down in Carmel—Toro. The sushi and sake bar from owners Kristen Ridout and Fadi Alnimri replaces États-Unis French American Bistro, which closed this spring.
“We both love sushi. We feel that Carmel could use a fun, new sushi place with wonderful beverage options and authentic Japanese fare,” says Ridout.
Ridout and Alnimri are both hospitality veterans. Ridout is a certified sommelier and was most recently assistant director of food and beverage at Monterey Peninsula Country Club. Alnimri is owner of Treehouse Cafe, and has partnered on a number of other restaurants over the years.
The pair are no strangers to sushi either.
Alnimri may now be an established local restaurateur, but Ridout reminds us he got his start working at Ocean Sushi Deli in Pacific Grove. He was later chef and owner at Sakana Sushi, which was open on Alvarado Street from 2010 to 2011. There, he connected with Ridout, “We’ve always talked about doing something together. We both love the industry and doing fun things with food. We’re really excited for this.”
You won’t find page after page of radical rolls or far-out fusion fare here, Toro’s menu tends toward the traditional. But don’t let the simplicity fool you, it’s backed by a commitment to quality sourcing. “We really do want to get the best quality here, not just the fish, but everything from the nori to the rice,” she says.
Appetizers include favorites like gyoza dumplings (chicken and pork or vegetarian, $12), fried agedashi tofu ($9), tempura (shrimp and vegetables, $14), seaweed salad ($7) and more. There is a touch of modern with appetizers like the Dynamite fried spicy tuna ($12), uni and sake shooters ($12 and $10, respectively), hamachi carpaccio ($12) and oysters on the half shell (half dozen or dozen, market price).
But fish is the focus of the menu.
“The focus is definitely showcasing the fish,” emphasizes Ridout. “I have a passion for getting the best product. All the fish we’re getting is being very carefully selected.”
Choose from nigiri—a simple sliver of raw fish on a petite pad of rice served as a pair—or sashimi. The menu of course features many sushi staples—hamachi (yellowtail, $7), hotate (scallop, $7), maguro (tuna, $7), saba (mackerel, $7), tai (red snapper, $9), tako (smoked octopus, $7) and unagi (broiled freshwater eel, $7). Some are seasonal, like amaebi (spot prawns) and uni (sea urchin) available at market price.
And yes, there’s toro—fatty tuna belly that’s the restaurant’s namesake.
Toro is prized by foodies for its luxurious taste and texture—but it’s a selection that courts controversy.
True toro comes from bluefin tuna—known in Japanese as hon maguro—whose belly has a high fat content that offers a sublime bite of sashimi. Toro comes in varying grades—otoro comes from the fattiest part of the belly, is almost white in appearance and melts in your mouth, while chutoro is less fatty and carries a distinctive pink color. (Most other tuna is akami—the red meat from the sides of the fish—and marketed as “maguro” on most menus.)
Bluefin tuna command record prices in fish auctions, so populations have plummeted due to the high demand for the prized catch. The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program recommends avoiding Pacific bluefin tuna entirely, and while some stocks of Atlantic bluefin tuna are considered a “Good Alternative,” others carry the same red “Avoid” rating as their Pacific counterparts.
How will Toro approach serving bluefin belly? “There are good sources of tuna from around the world that can be used, and fishermen that are using eco-friendly and sustainable fishing practices. We are planning to source fish from around the world to remain seasonal and eco-friendly,” says Ridout. Currently, the restaurant is serving bluefin chutoro from Japan, though expects sourcing will vary “based on availability and sustainability practices.”
Rolls feature sushi standards—California ($10), spicy tuna ($12), spider (tempura soft shell crab, $15), futomaki (egg, kanpyō gourd, shiitake and oboro shrimp paste, $8) and the like—plus custom creations like four seared rolls ($17-18), lightly torched to melt the flavors together. The menu also features temaki hand rolls—spicy tuna ($8) and crispy unagi eel ($8).
Combination plates provide a rainbow of fresh fish to enjoy. There’s chef’s choice sashimi (10 pieces, $30) and nigiri (seven pieces and a tuna tekka maki roll, $30) and a traditional chirashi bowl (assorted fish served on rice, $27). For the true Toro experience, ask for omakase—16 pieces of chef’s choice nigiri ($60).
Bento boxes will satisfy those with heartier appetites—or picky palates. Bento selections include chicken teriyaki ($22), salmon teriyaki ($26) or miso-marinated blackcod ($22) served with rice, steamed vegetables and a California roll. There’s also a vegetarian option with tempura veggies, inari (stuffed tofu skin), rice and a house salad ($20).
Ridout hopes sake service will help Toro stand out from other local sushi spots.
Sake is often reduced to hot, cold and sweet, but like wine, there’s an incredible amount of diversity.
It all starts with special sake-specific rice—about 80 different varieties with longer grains than rice cooked for food—milled to varying degrees to remove impurities, then mixed with water, kōji and yeast to trigger fermentation. The end product is often fragrant with fruit and floral notes not just on the nose, but the palate too.
The best sake is junmai—just rice, water, kōji and yeast, no additives—and polishing the rice grains yields varying grades of sake. Ginjo is a premium sake milled or “polished” to 60%—removing 40% of the grain before brewing—and daiginjo is a super-premium, fragrant sake polished to 50% or even more. Quality sake is served cold to preserve its complex bouquet of flavors. Some sake may be sparkling thanks to secondary fermentation, some may be unfiltered, cloudy and sweeter (nigori).
Toro’s sake selections include sparkling, junmai, junmai ginjo, junmai daiginjo and nigori. However, only junmai and nigori are available by the glass, the others are available by the bottle, most in 720 mL bottles ($60-150), but some in smaller splits of 250 or 300 mL ($18-26).
For the uninitiated, the sake flight ($25) is probably the best bet, offering “a carefully selected flight of five stylistically unique sakes” curated by sommelier—and Ridout’s fiancé—Stephen Wilson.
Sake cocktails are already proving to be Toro’s signature. The debut menu features three cocktails, though Ridout anticipates the list will grow as the restaurant gets more established. The bubbly Awadatsu combines prosecco, plum and lavender ($12), “It’s really lovely and refreshing but has a little sweetness.” Ridout’s favorite is the spicy Kōbashī—junmai sake, cucumber, lime, sugar and sriracha hot sauce ($12)—“It’s really exciting and enlivens your palate with a nice blend of spicy, sweet and sour all at the same time.” And rounding out the list is the “delicious” Oishī with junmai sake, lemon and rosemary ($12).
As a certified sommelier, Ridout has also curated wines to pair with Toro’s Japanese cuisine.
“Generally, wines with a lot of acid pair really well with food. For fish, especially, you want something that’s delicate and light,” explains Ridout. Toro’s wine selections, naturally, lean towards light, fish-friendly wines—prosecco, Sauvignon Blanc, Grüner Veltliner, Chardonnay and rosé by the glass and bottle—with just two lighter Pinot Noirs representing reds. “We won’t have a lot of red wine. If you’ve got a heavy Cabernet, it will kill any light fish you’re eating.”
Ridout promises the beverage program will evolve with more sakes and wines on offer in the weeks and months ahead. “I see it being fun and changing, starting off small, but hopefully rotating and getting stuff that will pair really well with the food.”
While state coronavirus guidelines prohibit indoor dining, Toro is open for outdoor dining on Dolores Street and in an adjacent courtyard, and food may be ordered for takeout too.
Toro • Dolores Street, between 5th and 6th, Carmel • 831-574-3255, torosushicarmel.com • Open 11am to 9pm daily for outdoor dining and takeout