Portugal reminds me of Canada in that both have major inferiority complexes. Canada lags behind the Americans in important things like Olympic gold medals, cheap book prices and more recent the value of the dollar. The states also have more restaurant chains, larger portion sizes, cheaper chicken nuggets and more childhood and adult obesity (although Canada is making valiant efforts to try and catch up on the latter).
Portugal, on the other hand, is overshadowed by Italy, Spain and France. In a CNN travel report in 2012 examining the world’s most romantic nationalities, Spain, Italy and France placed 1,3, and 4 respectively while Portugal did not even make the top 10, finishing behind the Americans, Irish and Vietnamese.
On the soccer pitch, Portugal historically lags behind their European rivals. Italy, France and Spain have all won european and world championships whereas Portugal is still seeking its elusive first win. There was some redemption recently when Portugal gained a world cup entry with an impressive second leg win over the Swedes. In addition, Portuguese phenom Cristiano Ronaldo took back the Ballon D’Or, the award for European soccer player of the year. Things are looking up.
When looking at Toronto’s dining landscape, the big three reign supreme. Year after year, Italian, French and Spanish restaurants top critic’s lists of best in the GTA and many of the new trendy restaurants that have opened recently are Spanish tapas joints like Patria, Carmen and Bar Isabel. When asked about the big three, Joe Q Foodie will easily cite the fact that the cuisine is all about respecting the fresh ingredients and using simple cooking methods. When asked about Portuguese cuisine, however, he will use his high school geography knowledge and assume fish. He faintly remembers Siri Siri sauce as he nervously shuffles his iPhone in his cardigan pocket wishing she was there to help (afterwards he secretly asks her only to be disappointed that she only brings up the wikipedia page for “sauce” but with more investigation discovers it’s actually piri piri sauce).
After a pipe burst at Adega, my group was rerouted to Chiado on College street. It’s a quaint, attractive venue adorned with colourful paintings and well dressed waitstaff. We were seated promptly and received a very good explanation of the menu. One of the signatures of the service is the presentation of a fish platter; a visual aid boasting the wide array of available choices from the sea. Included in the mix were three whole fish choices. For the indecisive, they also offer a tasting plate featuring three cuts chosen at the chef’s discretion.
Like soccer, the wines of Portugal are overshadowed by the products of Italy and France (I will politely leave Spain out of the equation). My experience with Portuguese wine has been limited to my mother buying one bottle of Mateus a year, having one glass and reserving the rest to clean silverware or something other household use. I was pleased to see a huge variety of wines from the mother county featured on the menu and quite enjoyed the poppy, fruity Luis Pato wine made with the Marie Gomes grape. I’m a sucker for a fringy type wine (I love Austrian Gruner for example) so I really liked it…maybe a little too much.
The amuse-bouche was a beautiful cheese served with a balsamic reduction and drizzled with honey. It worked much better than my picture did.
For an appetizer I ordered the grouper carpacio atop white asparagus, topped with pine nuts and seasoned with citrus. It was quite a sizable portion and was more like a ceviche. It wasn’t the prettiest dish and probably would have benefited from a little colour and/or spice. Maybe some green asparagus instead of white might have worked. Other than the appearance, I enjoyed it but there was way too much.
Also at the table was the grilled squid w/fresh coriander, lemon, garlic, extra virgin olive oil served with roasted sweet peppers, charred tomato and caramelized leeks. It was a very well executed dish and rivaled any calamari those Italians make. Once again, it was simply presented but lacked a visual punch.
I like the thought of playing with my food so I tackled the whole ocean perch. I was also sold on the promise of a large and tasty cheek. The fish arrived with the token potato and vegetable side. The ocean perch is quite bony so I felt a bit like a nervous surgical intern, especially when I offered a piece to a colleague at the table and failed to remove all the bones. I think the waiter sensed my frustration and politely offered to remove the other cheek for me. With my knife and fork he worked with a surgical precision and pulled out a large cheek which made the whole experience worth it.
I had an indecisive friend sitting beside me who ordered the sampling plate. Much to my delight, she was kind enough to share a little of her octopus, monkfish and skate. The skate and octopus were delicious but the monkfish stole the show. It was easily the best thing I ate all night. I was tempted to cause a distraction to swipe the remaining filet but kept my composure. As an afterthought I should have showed her a picture of a monkfish and asked her if she actually felt comfortable eating one of the ugliest fish on the planet. Damn hindsight.
For dessert, I went for the molotof which was described as a light meringue of egg whites served with vanilla cream sauce. The irony of this is that I think meringue is one of the most ridiculous food trends going but I was intrigued by the promise of the lightness compared to the brick hard meringue served everywhere else. It was a good call. Unlike the starters, it was presented pretty. It was light and delicious and my friend cashed in the IOU on the monkfish and scooped a few bites.
She ordered the peras cozidas (poached pears with Madeira wine, citrus, cinnamon and saffron). The pears were attractive, fresh and laced with punchy, spicy flavour.
I don’t mean to pick on Portugal but they are an easy target just like us Canadians (plus I haven’t forgiven them for ending England’s slim world cup dreams in 2006). The food, however, is underrated. It has the same philosophy as Spain and Italy in that it focuses on the freshness of the ingredients. As for Chiado, it’s a cozy place which nicely represents the beauty of what the ocean and Portugal has to offer. I agree with the reviews which question the prices but I can’t agree with those who call the service cold and pretentious. I found it professional and if anything confident, especially when he dissected my fish with the precision of Cristiano Ronaldo. Speaking of which, a few more monkfish filets may make me forgive him for scoring one of the penalty kicks that knocked England out of the world cup for good 8 years ago.