CAJU (922 Queen West, at Shaw, 416-532-2550) Who ever thought Queen West would be trendy again? Taking its name from the Portuguese word for cashew, this sleek chic spot dishes up authentic Brazilian cuisine with an upmarket bent -- think Latin fusion where African, Caribbean and Portuguese influences meld. Complete meals for $45 per person, including all taxes, tip and a Caipirinha. Open for dinner Tuesday to Saturday 5:30 to 11 pm, Sunday 5:30 to 10 pm. Bar open till 1 am. Closed Monday. Licensed. Access: barrier-free, washrooms in basement. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
Queen West quit being the cutting edge of Toronto's culinary scene with the closing of Stelle in 1989. Since then, the foodie focus has drifted north to now over-saturated College and lately to King west of Spadina. But a new Brazilian spot next door to Bar One hints that there's still room for invention on Toronto's hippest strip.
Taking its name from the Portuguese word for cashew, Caju looks awfully familiar. Exactly like next-door Bar One (924 Queen West, at Shaw, 416-535-1655) and Fresh by Juice for Life (894 Queen West, at Crawford, 416-913-2720), both disgned by Ralph Giannone.
But why mess with a winning formula: pale, institutional-green walls, cherrywood everywhere, rear-lit white translucent panels, mid-20th-century moulded plywood chairs, spiky mother-in-law's tongue plants. With a dozen customers spread about the multi-level space and a low-level jazzy Latino soundtrack, Caju oozes relaxed comfort. Throw in an additional 200 party hearty (they'll be flocking here soon, once word gets out) and the place could become a madhouse.
In the meantime, Jennifer Convertible and I enjoy the attention of Caju's very welcoming staff. Once settled in, we inhale complimentary Pao de Queijo, deliciously hot-from-the-oven cheese popovers. Jennifer follows with Sardinhas Grelhadas ($10), a criss-cross of tasty grilled sardines topped with mild mango salsa and plated over grainy polenta squares and a pile of arugula in passion fruit vinaigrette. As good as Caju's is, Cataplana's butterflied version still rules.
A classic of Latin cooking, Caju's black bean soup (Sopa de Feijao, $7) is subtler than most, with just a suggestion of garlic and lime. Pleasant but hardly a wow, it needs a daub of crema fresca next to its leek chiffonade.
By its very nature, Brazilian food is fusion -- a cultural collision of indigenous ingredients, colonial recipes and African techniques.
The mains better represent Brazil's diverse multiculti mix. We consider going Portuguese -- Madeira-braised pork tenderloin medallions with yucca rosti and oyster 'shrooms (Lombo, $18) -- or gaucho with rock-salted barbecued steak alongside yucca chips (Picanha, $19), but settle for fish and chicken.
I usually avoid bland, farmed salmon, but Caju's take on Atlantic salmon ($17) surprises, a fleshy rectangular slab layered over more polenta and that same timid mango salsa vinaigrette that tastes far better than it reads.
Convertible attempts to explore Brazil's African influences, but Frango com Quiabo -- beautifully seared chicken breast with even more polenta ($16) -- seems to be missing its menu-promised spinach and okra sauce. Without it it's well-executed but run-of-the-mill. We pass on out-sourced desserts but drain the last of our very Brazilian Caipirinha cocktails ($6).
First-time restaurateurs Mario Cassini and life-partner, Tina Giontsis, have achieved what so many others have failed to do, creating an elegant yet casual eatery (the pair are also responsible for the design) with a lineup of interesting and reasonably priced dishes. Sure, there are kinks and quirks, especially the sameness of the sides. Despite these easily corrected flaws, Caju is easily the best new downtown restaurant of 2003 so far.