Sharing Inferiority and Ghosts of Ronaldo Past at Chiado

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.

Amuse Bouche- Cheese with Balsamic and Honey
Amuse-Bouche- Cheese with Balsamic and Honey

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.

Grouper Carpacio $16
Grouper Carpacio $16

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.

Grilled Squid w/fresh coriander, lemon, garlic, extra virgin olive oil served with roasted sweet peppers, charred tomato and caramelized leeks $15
Grilled Squid w/fresh coriander, lemon, garlic, extra virgin olive oil served with roasted sweet peppers, charred tomato and caramelized leeks $15

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.

Ocean Perch
Whole Ocean Perch

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.

Skate, Monkfish and Octopus Taster
Skate, Monkfish and Octopus Taster

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.

Molotof $12
Molotof $12

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.

$12
Peras Cozidas $12

My Take

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.

Chiado on Urbanspoon

Review:Toronto:King West:Patria

Nestled behind Weslodge is the newest experiment by the same owners,  Hanif Harji and Charles Khabouth.  Many eateries in Toronto have adapted the small plate concept but few have tackled traditional Spanish tapas.  In addition to the food, Patria (meaning homeland) has a decor showcasing beautiful art highlighted by a full tapestry along one wall, ceiling high windows along the other and modern fixtures and trinkets in between. The restaurant was bustling with a diverse and busy crowd but the noise level was not excessive.  The service philosophy is reminiscent of my experience in Barcelona; quick and efficient.  My water glass (even though she wasn’t too happy we opted for tap water) was rarely close to empty and the finished dishes were removed quickly.

Must 

I’ve had some bad sangria in Toronto establishments which define it is as  nothing more than watered down table wine with ice and a few orange slices.  Patria returns this iconic drink to its rightful position, although at a price ($30/jug).  The flavour was crisp and vibrant, accented by pieces of fresh fruit peppered throughout an abundance of ice in the  glass (take this as a warning…ask for minimal ice in advance if you don’t like that sort of thing).  As mentioned above, the service was amazing.  I didn’t pour any of my own during the entire meal.

Sangria($30)

The ensalada de aguacate conqueso de cabra y membrillo was a delicious salad combining simple but quality ingredients (goat cheese, avocado, almonds)  tossed in a fragrant quince dressing.  Like a good tapas dish, it’s special in its simplicity, offering a freshness and crispness which is a perfect complement to the remainder of the menu.

Ensalada de aguacate conqueso de cabra y membrillo ($12)

The Pimientos Rellenos de Buey (oxtail stuffed peppers) topped the list of  tapas choices. The sweet pepper was brimming with a deceivingly large amount of moist, well seasoned meat and accented nicely with salty, shaved manchego cheese, justifying the $12 price tag.

Pimientos Rellenos de Buey (peppers with oxtail)($12)

I’m a huge fan of serrano ham and the offering here lived up to my standards. It was fresh, fatty and not overly salted.  I was possibly biased by the prep station on the way in, which showcased the preparation of the  ham, which is shaved on demand.  It was particularly good with the DO Murcia al Vino cheese and sourdough bread served with a chunk of quince jam.

Serrano Ham ($10) and Olives ($4)

On occasion, I get a craving for chocolate pudding.  Perhaps this was the night, because I thoroughly enjoyed Patria’s offering. It was garnished with coarse salt and a sugar orb which you crack to release a small amount of olive oil over the pudding, adding a unique but  appealing third dimension of taste and flavour.

Chocolate Pudding with Olive Oil Orb ($6)

Maybe

Fragrant saffron highlights the Garbanzo Con Espinaces (Chickpea Spinach Stew), a rather odd and less traditional tapas choice.  The highlight of this dish is the migras (bread crumbs) which add a brilliant crunch to the otherwise textureless stew.  Simply put, if you like saffron, order this dish.

Garbanzo Con Espinaces (Chickpea Spinach Stew)($7)

The patatas bravas con heuvos fritos (potatoes with spicy tomato and an egg) are a spin on the classic tapas dish normally served with an aioli but in this case also was served with an egg .  In the first attempt, the egg was overdone but they quickly replaced it with a second which was much better. The potatoes were hot, the tomato was spicy.  All in all, it was a decent dish. 

Patatas Bravas ($8)

The pan con tomate with manchego seemed like a modified version of bruschetta as opposed to the traditional spanish dish which uses tomato as a seasoning (the tomato is rubbed onto the bread) more than a main component of the dish.  I’ll be honest, I’m not a tomato fan but I’m also a bit bothered by the deviation from the traditional dish as well. 

Pan con Tomate ($6)and Manchego Cheese ($8) with Quince Jam

I ordered octopus off the “specials” menu at a pricy $15.  Seven bite size pieces were served on tender potatoes on a bed of olive oil and paprika.   The potatoes were cooked perfectly, but the main event not so much. It was overcooked and therefore  a bit “tough” to justify the price.

Octopus ($15) on special menu

The churros served with a dulce de leche were crunchy and soft at the same time and were decent but not mind-blowing.

Churros ($6) with Dulce de Leche

Mundane

The croquetas de manchego ( leek and cheese croquettes) are a spin on this popular tapas dish which are usually served stuffed with ham or chicken.  The inside was a gooey mess of soft manchego goat cheese with only a hint of leek.  A bit of spicy tomato may have helped salvage the dish but the rich and creamy aioli did nothing to accent the already rich and creamy croquette. 

Croquetas de Manchego ($7)

In general, the service was fantastic but I was a bit bothered by the blatant upselling, whether it was a push for more dishes or more expensive ones. I was told that we didn’t order enough food and when I suggested that we could order again if we wanted to, the response was that they preferred to submit orders only once.  Despite this fact, the dishes did not arrive in a fluid and consistent fashion and it would have been quite simple to order more as needed.  In the end, there was too much food.   

My Take

Patria reminds me of a spanish exchange student who has come over with the intent on sticking to their traditional roots but getting caught up in the ways of the locals.  The pan con tomate became a dish similar to the bruschetta served by all the cool Italians down the road.  The croqueta mimics the cheese sticks you can get at any  roadhouse dwellers along Front St.  Patria even wants to fit in with the carnivores, offering a $65 ribeye steak to match the likes of Ruth’s Chris.  It’s a bit of an identity crisis.  Even the service is a  bit confusing, characterized by friendly staff, continuous water service and quick dish clearance while being upsold  like you’re in a used car lot. Unlike its patria , Toronto’s Patria has certainly adapted to the Toronto restaurant scene, pricing most menu items on the high end of acceptable. Whether you stick will small dishes, pastas ($16-18) or the paellas (around $30),  don’t expect a cheap evening.

In the end, despite the minor mistakes and issues,  Patria worked hard to remedy any of the problems and overall  I left very satisfied, reminding me that in the end a  happy customer is a fundamental priority in this business regardless of what side of the ocean you’re on.

 
Patria on Urbanspoon

The 39 year-old Virgin: Adventures in Barcelona.

Yes, this is my first trip to Europe as I wasn’t privy to travel in my younger years. So, after almost 4 decades, I crossed the Atlantic, landing in Barcelona, Spain. Having spent the better part of two days there, I made the following observations:

1. People in Spain walk slow.
2. Wifi is difficult to find.
3. Everybody wears scarves.
4. A beer and sandwich combo is cheaper than a soda and sandwich combo at the airport.
5. The architecture is fantastic.
6. You need your room key to turn on your lights.
7. You can buy almost anything on the street including beer, umbrellas, street food, flowers etc.
8.The food is pretty good.

Since this is a food blog, I will focus on the latter. The food choices are endless. Every nook and cranny is jammed with small eateries, each promising a special variety of decor, personality and of course, food. The restaurants range from off the menu to choosing off a tray under a pane of glass. I can best describe it as simple. No garnish, no explanation, just the food.

A Tale of Two Tapas.

Ciudad Condal had a long wait but I was seated within 30 minutes.

Their flauta was probably the simplest yet the best thing I ate in the two days I was in Barcelona. Simply, it’s  chorizo inside a small loaf of bread for about three euros. The crunch of the bread followed by the rich chorizo was perfect. I put a little machego cheese inside my second one which added some saltiness as well.

The patatas bravas are Spain’s version of poutine. They are basically potatoes covered in a creamy aioli and hot sauce. Also of honourable mention were the fried Padron peppers, simply prepared with salt and olive oil. The nature of these  peppers are generally mild but a few on the plate pack a hot punch, leading to the term “Unos Picans Otros No” meaning some are hot, some are not. I was lucky to get a few biters.  A great dish was the potatoes topped with fried eggs (Huevos Cabreados).  It is a simple but delicious dish; matchstick fried potatoes topped with soft fried eggs cut table side.

I’m a huge flan fan. The creamy spanish flan was a nice ending  and was not overly sweet despite the abundant caramelized sugar.

The service was fast, friendly and efficient.

Chorizo Flautas at Ciudad
Patatas Bravas
Padron Peppers at Ciudad
Huevos Cabreados (Matchstick Potatoes with Egg-Yum)
Caramel Flan at Ciudad

I’m always drawn by places with good reputations and high Zagat ratings. Tapas 24 fit the category in both regards. Much different than Ciudad Condal, Tapas 24 is situated in a basement just off the beaten path of the tourist section.  It was about 11 pm and the place was packed. When I was seated I noticed a much smaller, yet more expensive menu than Ciudad. It was certainly more run down but was filled with character. I was seated at the bar so I could see the open kitchen which was run old school, with orders called from paper tickets stuck on magnetic boards and run like a well-oiled machine.

I started with the standard patatas bravas which were shaped like fries and looked a bit a bit dismal compared to the chunky potatoes at Ciudad.  It was  followed by the bikini (a bit of an ironic name given it’s a grilled ham and cheese sandwich). In this case if was flavoured with some shaved black truffle which was subtle as opposed to overpowering (it’s a fine line when it come to truffle). However, it was a bit imbalanced since the smoked ham I so enjoy was drowned out by the buffalo mozzarella. It was basically  a nine Euro fancy grilled cheese. I finished with calamares (squid) recommended by a guy who looked and dressed like he should don a red cape and run away from bulls. It was simply presented, seasoned with olive oil and when mixed with the bitter, leaking squid ink provided  a good balance. Not sure it was worth 16 euro, but it was certainly unique.

Tapas 24 Patatas Flauvas
Tapas 24 Bikini Sandwich
Tapas 24 Calamares (Baby Squid)

I didn’t realize Spain would have such good ice cream. In particular was a place called Belgious. Situated in what seemed to be a shady back alley along the goth section of the ramblas (maybe it was also the fact it was past midnight), my broken Spanish saw the word exotic and ice cream together and I was sold. I was able to sample a number of flavours including gin and tonic, szechuan pepper, curry and cannibus..yes cannibus. I ended up settling on a combination of thyme (my favourite spice) and Modena vinegar with raspberries. Delish! No picture though..a bit too shady to pull the Blackberry out.

On another note, there are great markets in Barcelona. I managed to visit two during my travels.  La Concepcio is located not far from downtown Barcelona.  It’s a smaller market with a wonderful seafood selection (the meat and chicken isn’t bad either) . In fact, you don’t even smell the fish despite the fact you’re surrounded by it.   Both offered a wide variety of meats, chicken and some of the best fish I have ever seen. La Boqueria is perhaps the most well-known and busiest market and was certainly bustling when I was there.  Once again, the seafood was amazing, complete with huge oysters and fresh fish butchered on the spot. There was a variety of prepared foods such squid on a skewer and fresh juices.  I quenched my palate with a mango coconut juice for a couple of euros.

Oysters at the Market
Prawns at the Market
Produce at the Market
Squid on a Skewer at the Market

I hit the George Payne bar as well which offers great soccer, confusing drink specials and not so good food.