Caju was brought to my attention when it hosted a locally organized fundraiser to raise money to build soccer pitches in Brazil. Please see http://www.facebook.com/justforkicksto for more information. I met the chef and owner, Mario, who invited me to come back and experience Brazilian food. Without hesitation, I took him up on the offer.
A couple of weeks later I made a reservation and was treated to a great lesson. Like many countries with large geographies, the cuisine is regional, mainly dictated by the availability of local ingredients. Historically and not surprisingly, it is heavily influenced by Portugal (Caju is also the Portuguese name for the fruit of the cashew tree which sprouts the popular nut). Interestingly, Brazilian cuisine is also influenced by immigrants from Asia, Africa and the Middle East.
The caipirinha is Brazil’s national cocktail. Caju does not disappoint. Made with sugar cane rum, sugar and lime, this cocktail is quite refreshing and rivals many others served on the strip, without the need to add cucumber or Pimm’s. The price point is also reasonable with a number of variations on the caipirinha available for $8. By the way, the Brazilian cheese buns are great too.
The feijoada (a bean based pork and sausage stew with spices and aromatics) had a basewith a deep, complex flavor reflective of the slow cooking process. The stewed pork was tender and coupled with the well seasoned sausage provided both taste and textural differences.
The feijoada was served with traditional accompaniments including cassava (both fried and milled), collard greens and rice, resulting in a variety of different flavors with each forkful.
The gnocchi meshes the traditional flavours of tomato and olive oil with a brazilian spin of cassava flour and heart of palm to create a vegetarian, gluten-free option competitive with others available in the area.
The passion fruit mousse was a perfect finish to the meal. The tartness of the fruit was not drowned out by sugar, resulting in a fresh flavour with a palate cleansing effect.
The moqueca (an African influenced seafood soup with a foundation of coconut milk and fish stock and seasoned with onion and cilantro) had an intense flavour reminiscent of a Thai tom yum or Singapore laksa soup. It was spiced perfectly although I wished it was served a little hotter. It was quite salty but not unbearably so. I would have loved if they served it with a boiled egg…then again, I would add an egg to any dish any time.
The pasteis are similar to empanadas and are stuffed with heart of palm or cheese. The former were full of filling and flavor, the latter not so much so. The accompanying hot sauces were full of punchy flavor which complimented the more subtle flavour of the two-bite appetizers.
Sandwiched in between the established Queen West and the emerging Ossington area and rather discreet, Caju is a bit of a black sheep along this strip. It just may be that traditional flavours and decor have fallen a bit out of fashion, especially in this volatile neighborhood. This is not a complaint, per se, but some passerbys will look in the window and carry on in search of blackboard menus and tattooed service.
Caju offers traditional Brazilian fare in a traditional setting (the floors are made of Brazilian Cherry wood). This is in stark contrast to the much talked about eateries (eg. ursa and county general) on the same block which boast eclectic environments and tailor their menus to current food trends. I would argue that many of Caju’s dishes would easily fit in most menus along the Queen street corridor or other hot restaurants in the area. The moqueca, for example, is hands down better than hawkerbar’s signature laksa. Fried cassava with that hot sauce could easily pass on La Carnita’s menu. I admire Mario’s commitment to tradition and at the same time I’m left yearning for more. He spoke of the traditional use of pig trimmings (ear, tail, feet) and different varieties of sausage that could be used in the frijoada which I think would appeal to the same people who wait two hours to down a pig tail taco at Grand Electric or subscribe to the trendy nose to tail philosophy. After dining at Caju, I easily see why they have an impressive Zagat rating of 26 for food and 24 for service. Despite being neat and inviting, I also see why they have a more mediocre 21 (even though still considered very good) in decor since it seems a little out of place in this neighbourhood filled with chaos and pretension. Perhaps serving dishes in the traditional clay pots or incorporating more “Brazil” into the environment would appease those who were more disappointed with the decor than they were with the food.
In the end, I believe good food and good service do not go out of style. I enjoy getting bread and very tasty cheese buns before my meal, being served by friendly staff wearing traditional white and black uniforms (as opposed to black tees with head-scratching pictures or witty sayings) and eating fusion cuisine defined through years of tradition and not what the current trendsetters and saloon owners are saying about collard greens and sweetbreads. Traditional Brazilian food in a traditional environment is Caju…or cashew, in a nutshell.