The nerve! The Literary Device starts to have a conniption while she drags on a cigarette and leans against the wrought-iron railing that separates the street from the dining room of Sintra.
Less than 10 feet away, two all-in-white servers hand out coupons for free appetizers to potential customers passing by this Portuguese boite that just relocated to College after a three-and-a-half-year stint on Dundas West. Neither one of them thinks to offer her a freebie even though she -- along with myself, our culinary chum Chester Drawers and his sullen teenage son Droopy -- has already commandeered six- week-old Sintra's front window table.
"Don't we rate?" she seethes. "Is it because they've already suckered us in that they feel they don't have to lure us with the bait?"
Bumpy ride As usual, the Device overreacts. Her smoke extinguished, she's convinced by Chester to come back inside, rejoin the group and calm down. Another server brings us a small, round loaf of sliced cornbread topped with toasted rosemary, a tub of black-bean puree to spread and a bowl with three types of tangy ripe olives -- one green, two black.
"The bread's stale," she pontificates. "And the puree desperately needs garlic."
I smile weakly at the server, Chester stares into his lap, and Droopy wishes he were anywhere but here. Looks like it's going to be one of those nights -- a bumpy ride, as Bette Davis predicted in All About Eve.
No guesswork is necessary to know that Pasteis De Bacalhau ($5.95) is a sure-thing. A trio of lightly breaded cod cakes are stacked vertically on a bed of baby greens, harpooned by a rosemary "tree" and drizzled with creamy coriander-garlic aioli. An equally fault-free starter, Lulas Grelhadas ($6.95) -- tender tendrils of grilled calamari doused with balsamic, extra-virgin olive oil and garlic -- rides a mound of mesclun strewn with caramelized shallots.
We're not so lucky with the next two aps. A shredded crab salad, Limoes Recheados ($6.95) comes partially stuffed in a hollowed-out lemon.
The remainder of this so-so dish spills around the plate, tossed with red and green pepper confetti and coriander pesto squiggles. Just as dull, Salada Caesar ($5.25) finds ripped romaine leaves coated with a mustardy anchovy-paste dressing crowned with a slice of baguette instead of the menu-promised cornbread croutons and Parmesan crisps. In sum, dim.
The Device remains doubtful, but the rest of us are looking forward to the main courses we've selected. As we wait, we take in the room that -- unless you already knew it had recently been redecorated -- you'd swear was a typical Toronto resto reno circa 1992.
Sunflower-coloured stucco walls accented with burled maple panels get spotlit by halogen lamps shaded with cobalt-blue glass globes. Tables are covered with heavy white linen and attended by comfy banquettes and moulded wood chairs. Monsoon this ain't.
Simply superb The CDs playing on the sound system create a odd mix. Bob Marley, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Bobbie Gentry, Jennifer Lopez and Van Morrison random-shuffle alongside Portuguese pop. Weird, eclectic or what?
Marinated with sweet Madeira and contrasting sharp juniper berries, Coelho No Churrasco ($18.95) -- butterflied, grilled rabbit -- is simply superb, herbed with oregano, rosemary and thyme and sided with grilled tomato and a timbale of smashed kidney beans, smoky chourico sausage, collard greens and cornbread crumbs.
The Device can't praise her Salmao Suado ($16.95) enough. Steamed in parchment paper along with a julienne of cabbage, red pepper and carrot, the divinely flaky salmon comes slathered in a wonderful buttery coriander pesto.
Clashing vinegar I'm not totally convinced by Carne De Porco Alentejana ($16.95), a wine-marinated pork stew studded with baby clams and diced potatoes lashed with clashing vinegar. You put vinegar on fries, the Device points out, but I'm still wary.
Droopy easily inhales his Bife Grelhado ($17.95), a 10-ounce sirloin straddled by a fried egg and served with Portuguese-style chips. But there's no way he's eating pickled cauliflower. It's pink.
As is Pera Bebeda ($7.95), a dessert of port-poached pear pooled with Quiejo Fresco, the mascarpone-like goat cheese. Mousse De Chocolate ($6.95) comes crowned with white-chocolate antlers. Mel, I've found those missing moose hat-racks!
Back a few days later for lunch with Jennifer Convertible, this time I find the bread fresh but the bean spread still under-powered. We sip frosted flutes of sparkling white Danubio ($7.95 glass/$45 bottle), one of only 15 or so vintages currently available by the glass even though the cellar boasts over 150 different labels.
Convertible's Caldo Verde ($4.25) can be best described as cream of instant potato soup. And it could use salt. But my Sopa De Camarao ($4.75) is a fabulous seafood broth spiked with garlic and paprika and loaded with shrimp -- well, two big 'uns -- and Portuguese kus-kus pasta, similar to African couscous.
Harder stuff Both Torta De Chourico ($8.95), a frittata thick with chourico, potato and peppers, and Salada De Marisco ($7.95), mussels, shrimp, clams and squid on greens, are lacking a certain je-sais-exactement: hot sauce.
We're offered a commercial bottle of piri-piri sauce, the Portuguese equivalent of Tabasco, but ask for the harder stuff. And it's killer -- a concentrated garlicky piri-piri chili puree that puts everything it touches into hyper-drive.
Owners Sergio and Nidia Goncalves, along with chef Kevin Brandt -- formerly of Messis and who, until five months ago, had never attempted a Portuguese dish -- are onto a good thing. Bucking the College rule of tongue -- pasta, pizza, panini -- and tackling what few local Portuguese spots pull off, Sintra delivers traditionally influenced grub that's not overcooked or too salty, yet still manages a contemporary edge.
Even the Device now applauds their nerve.
(588 College, 533-1106) (588 College, 533-1106) (588 College, 533-1106)
Upscale Portuguese bistro on the College Cal-Ital strip. Fancy if somewhat dated digs provide a backdrop for expertly grilled seafood that needs more oomph. Despite a cellar holding over 150 vintages, few are available by the glass. Complete dinners for $45 per person ($23 at lunch), including all taxes, tip and a glass of wine or a bottle of Portuguese beer. Open for lunch Tuesday to Friday 11 am to 3 pm, and for dinner Tuesday, Wednesday and Sunday 5 to 10 pm, Thursday to Saturday 5 pm to midnight. Closed Monday. Fully licensed. Access: one step at door, washrooms in basement. Rating: Upscale Portuguese bistro on the College Cal-Ital strip. Fancy if somewhat dated digs provide a backdrop for expertly grilled seafood that needs more oomph. Despite a cellar holding over 150 vintages, few are available by the glass. Complete dinners for $45 per person ($23 at lunch), including all taxes, tip and a glass of wine or a bottle of Portuguese beer. Open for lunch Tuesday to Friday 11 am to 3 pm, and for dinner Tuesday, Wednesday and Sunday 5 to 10 pm, Thursday to Saturday 5 pm to midnight. Closed Monday. Fully licensed. Access: one step at door, washrooms in basement. Rating: NNN
Grilled rabbit with Madeira, sided with smashed kidney beans, pork sausage and collard greens