O FAROL CHURRASQUEIRA (1474 St. Clair West, at McRobert, 416-654-7474) Family-style Portuguese joint has a deft hand with grilled fish if a heavy one on the salt shaker. The simpler the better. Complete meals for $25 per person, including all taxes, tip and a glass of vinho verde. Open Tuesday to Sunday 11 am to midnight. Licensed. Separate smoking area. Access: barrier-free. Rating: NNN
St. Clair heading west past Vaughan is a few nabes waiting to happen. Six lanes wide with streetcars running down the centre, this now sleepy avenue is a street of several strips -- valleys, really. First, the stretch from Bathurst to Oakwood, then a dip again on the way to Dufferin, and finally over the hill to a fuzzy view stretching west to the edge of the earth.
No wonder Toronto's Italian population settled here in the years after the second world war. The steep terrain reminded them of home. Since then, they've been joined by waves of Portuguese, Latin Americans and countless other new Canadians.
Today, this multi-culti strip is home to fish markets, butcher shops, discount shoe stores, sports bars hidden behind closed Venetian blinds (my fave -- the now defunct Life Goes On) and two adjacent businesses that specialize in vacuum cleaners. Throw a hundred trendy trattorias into the mix and the three-mile streetscape wouldn't lose any of its old-school mom-and-pop character.
Oh, they tried to do just that back in the 80s. The Corso Italia bloomed for a time when a number of smart cafés outfitted in tubular furniture created a lively street scene -- hot boites like Rizzonte, Jolly Italian, Fillipo's and Ferro. Churrasco of St. Clair's barbecue, Mezzetta's Middle Eastern tapas and Albert's Real Jamaican jerk became foodie magnets. But greedy landlords and real estate speculators drove rents sky-high, and the club action shifted downtown to College.
While O Farol won't rassle the sheep away from Xacutti or Brasserie Aix, this large L-shaped Portuguese churrasqueira attracts soccer fans and extended families who love their meat. Even vegetable soup ($2) -- a gorgeous velvety purée of spuds and cabbage -- gets goosed by smoky chorizo.
Some of it's for purists. I gamely taste Chicken Blood Rice ($8.50) and encounter a mess of short-grain rice and miscellaneous fowl in ghastly liver-tasting gravy. Need more be said about Assorted Boiled Meat ($10)?
Despite its propensity to overcook the animal flesh, O Farol's open kitchen gets it right when grilling seafood.
A Friday special of buttery salt cod ($12) comes layered with a whack of garlic and whole-roasted sweet Vidalia onions and side-saddled with red-jacketed spuds drizzled with olive oil. Looking more like trout, lemony sea bass ($15) practically dissolves on the plate, it's so perfectly cooked.
Crusted with crisp golden skin dusted with garlic, succulent oven-roasted suckling pig ($12.50) falls from the bone. Tinted wine-red, stewed rabbit ($8.50) really does taste like chicken -- honest. However, sides are a mere backdrop to the mains -- rice studded with frozen veg (how many more times?), frozen fries, Portuguese-style potatoes (sliced thin and deep-fried in clumps), potatoes balled or very boiled. Surprisingly, carrots and broccoli retain their bite.
Wash them all down with a half-litre of Gazela vinho verde ($10.25), a light wine similar to Persecco that's made for summer afternoon sipping. And don't miss miniature loaves of cornbread served with carafes of olive oil and balsamic vinegar for dunking.the west side's blanketed with barbecue, but A Capoeira (1072 St. Clair West, at Glenholme, 416-658-0847) does something none of its competition attempts -- rabbit. Pricey at 25 bucks a pop, these scrawny critters take more kindly to slow-cooking than to frying on a hot grill for half an hour. But the two-pound rotisserie chicken ($8) is anything but rubbery, a fabulously moist bird basted by paint brush inside and out with fiery piri-piri. Pair it with cod croquettes ($1) mixed with mashed potato and parsley freckles.straight out of the 50s, talho e Salsicharia (1300 St. Clair West, at Greenlaw, 416-656-3590) is a set decorator's dream. I love casing these grocery joints for something new. I find it: turesmos ($2.99), a head-cheese-style pâté made with pork fat and gristly bits. Spread on bread, it's good with wine. Several glasses.Another St. Clair plus? Lotsa parking. In fact, both O Farol and Vanipha Lanna (863 St. Clair West, at Winona, 416-654-8068) -- the latest and largest edition of Toronto's only Laotian cantina -- have their own lots. Anyone who fancies the spring rolls at the Rivoli, Queen Mother or the Oliver-Bonacini chain (and many other downtown eateries that don't admit they're out-sourcing) will be able to buy them frozen from Vanipha's retail outlet right next door in the near future.
The Clair has its own Latin quarter, too, a row of restaurants that are always changing their handles even though the grub remains the same.
There's also a Hungarian enclave. Although it's only five years old, Sweet Master (736 St. Clair West, at Rushton, 416-652-6030) oozes old-world charm: dark wood-panelled walls, Strauss waltzes on the Blaupunkt and display cases of tempting pastries.
Every day there's a dinner special -- chicken paprikash with dumplings ($7.95), say -- but the real stars are the boozy desserts. A delicious layer cake called Dobscz ($3.35) alternates biscuit-like tiers of chocolate and vanilla, and poppyseed strudel ($2.65) awakens taste memories of long ago.
There's little forgettable about World Class Bakers (690 St. Clair West, at Christie, 416-654-1888), a newbie to the nabe that's already become a pit-stop for strollers, both two-legged and four-wheeled.
While this generic 90s upscale coffee cafeteria looks unremarkable, a simple 8-inch pizza -- thinly sliced zuke, a few red pepper strips, a whack of garlic and e.v.o. -- makes a noteworthy nosh. But a salty melted mozzarella-stuffed panini (both $4) is a fancy description for what is otherwise known as a grilled cheese sandwich.
Rich with ricotta and minced spinach, think of vegetarian lasagna ($5.95) as tasty but vertically challenged cannelloni. And while the pale pink unseasonal tomato piled high on a toasted baguette gets all its flavour from a generous rubbing of garlic, snips of fresh basil and a lashing of olive oil, World Class's bruschetta ($2) will be, well, world-class once summertime hits. email@example.com