west of bathurst, the street signs along College claim that the nabe's known as Little Italy. Tell that to the mostly Portuguese community living there.Most of the Portuguese spots in the area -- far-from-posh places like Perla, Alex Rei Dos Leitoes, Amadeus -- specialize in home-style cooking. All too often, this translates as overcooked and way too salty. But a few Portuguese eateries -- notably Chiado and Sintra -- are putting a more contemporary and less traditional spin on their seafood-heavy menus.
Add Cataplana to that sophisticated list. A one-year-old formal dining room on a part of the College strip dominated by sports bars, Cataplana oozes class -- tables set with white linen, folded napkins and substantial cutlery, polished wooden flooring, exposed brick walls hung with Picasso-esque prints. Servers in standard-issue white shirts 'n' black slacks never hover but always seem to be there when needed. Nat King Cole croons on the CD player. Impressive.
Even more awe-inspiring, partner/chef José Alves's daily specials like roasted veal or octopus risotto go for only 10 bucks at lunch. (At dinner, prices for mains range from the high teens to the upper 20s).
On a recent noontime visit, we open with grilled sardines ($7.25 lunch/$7.95 dinner). Expecting a typical presentation -- a coupla plain critters complete with heads and tails -- we're floored by Alves's expert version. Four beautifully smoky fish have been beheaded, filleted, then butterflied over rounds of thin, grilled pineapple. On top, the chef piles a savoury salsa of cubed cucumber, red onion and shaved black olives. Beside them sits a mound of sweet Spanish onion threads.
Today's flaky skate ($10) comes pan-fried and rides an equally sizable pillow of rich tomato rice flecked with carrot, peppers and fresh herbs. A length of purple flowering rosemary rides shotgun.
Too subtle, vegetarian risotto ($10) finds pieces of portobello mushroom, green asparagus, yellow zucchini and red pepper fighting it out for control of the large-portioned plate. Almost boneless moist chicken breast sauced with five-spice, chili oil, garlic and peppercorns ($12/$15.95) gets sided with a clever asparagus-rapini bundle, roasted sweet and regular potatoes, flower-topped baby yellow zucchini and bacony tomato relish studded with fava beans. Quite lovely.
This calls for a return trip. Our mid-day meal starts again with a basket of super crusty cornbread dipped in fruity Vilaflor olive oil, addictive raisin-like olives and a litre bottle of fizzy water ($5). Today, we select as an appetizer a smooth hockey puck of herb-crusted Woolwich goat cheese lying alongside a papadam cone stuffed with red leaf, romaine and spinach leaves dressed with raspberry vinaigrette ($7.95/$8.75). A random toss of walnuts and oven-roasted red onion complete the tasty picture.
A lot of folks have a phobia about eating rabbit -- childhood memories of Peter Cottontail, Bugs, Thumper and all that.
The few home cooks who try it have little success in ridding the bunny of its slightly gamy taste. But here, split and grilled rabbit ($14.50) is superb in a citrus-spiked wine sauce cheekily sided with sculpted green-topped carrots as well as roasted potatoes, a few kidney beans and more of that asparagus-rapini combo. And yes, it tastes like chicken.
Not surprisingly, Cataplana's signature dish gets cooked and served in a cataplan, a hinged and lidded clamshell-shaped copper casserole. Once opened, an appetizing cloud of steam dissipates to reveal succulent cubes of pork tenderloin and deep-fried potato and a scattering of Manila clams swimming in a white wine gravy ($13.95/$18.95).
We finish with white chocolate flan ($4.50/$7.25) accessorized with a gorgeous caramelized mint sauce spooned over orange wedges and perfectly executed cappuccino ($2.75).
Cataplana's a popular nighttime dining destination, so why the moderately priced restaurant sits nearly empty at lunch while nearby joints pack 'em in for subpar fare is a mystery to me. Maybe Cataplana needs a lucky rabbit's foot?
once the only cuban cantina on the Danforth, La Carreta (2579 Yonge, at Sherwood, 416-322-9677) has expanded to roomier digs north of Eglinton in the former El Cid. Suave owner Jos Garcia tells NOW his reasonably priced nuevo Latino tapas lineup remains unchanged and that dance lessons -- salsa, merengue, cha-cha-cha -- continue on Wednesday and Thursday evenings. Why the move?"People go to the Danforth for Greek food," Garcia reckons. "Up here, they like to dance."
CATAPLANA (938 College, at Dovercourt, 416-538-1562) A pricey Portuguese joint after dark, this very formal room offers deftly executed lunchtime starters and mains at ridiculously reasonable prices. Throw in smooth service and a CD mix that runs from Amalia Rodriguez to Nat King Cole and get a noteworthy noontime nosh. Complete dinners for $50 per person ($20 at lunch), including all taxes, tip and a glass of wine. Open for lunch Monday to Saturday noon to 3 pm, and for dinner nightly 5 to 10 pm. Fully licensed. Access: three steps at door, three steps to washrooms. Rating: NNN