ATLANTIC (1597 Dundas West, at Brock, 416-219-3819, atlanticondundas.com) Complete dinners for $45 per person, including all taxes, tip and a glass of Vinho Verde. Average tapas $9. Open Sunday to Wednesday 7 pm to midnight, Thursday to Saturday 7 pm to 2 am. Closed some holidays. Licensed. Access: barrier-free, washrooms in basement. Rating: NNN
We've come to Atlantic, Nathan Isberg's two-month-old Little Portugal supper spot, specifically for crickets. The ex-Czehoski and Coco chef is said to serve the musical insects dry-fried as appetizers.
We're the first to arrive this Wednesday evening, but within an hour the former Portuguese seafood resto - also named Atlantic - is packed to the gills. Congratulating ourselves for being smart enough to book a table, we're directed to a roomy four-top in the front window and asked if we'd like something from the bar. We'll start with the crickets.
"They're not on tonight," our server says, startled, before quickly switching gears with a smile to suggest we each order two or three dishes and share them tapas-style.
A half-hour wait before the first of them shows up allows our eyes to adjust to the dimly lit 26-seat room, its deep ocean blue walls hung with nautical tchotchkes. On the carefully curated soundtrack, Timmy Thomas rocks a home organ and beat box circa 72, wondering why we all can't just live together.
When the plates do begin to appear, they come out one at a time and in no particular order. Caldo verde could be the quintessential Portuguese comfort food, here a luxuriously creamy potato purée laced with salt cod, spicy chorizo and wild leeks, the lot splashed with smoked-paprika chili oil.
A pair of whole sardines could have used a few more minutes on the grill to give them a crispy skin, their gremolata dressing a needed lemony lift. Five-dollar glasses of vinho verde (2008 Quinta de Azevedo, $30 bottle) help wash down a very good potato salad of red fingerlings tossed with shredded crab, mustard sprouts and dandelion greens we imagine were plucked from a nearby lawn.
"Instead of the 100-mile diet, I'm doing the 100-yard diet," says Isberg. "I've got every kind of seafood you could imagine just down the street, and the No Frills over on Lansdowne is phenomenal."
That's where he sources his terrific frogs' legs (all $9) before grilling them over charcoal in piri-piri sauce and plating them over fresh oregano leaves. Some cornbread from Brazil Bakery across the street would not be amiss.
Not everything's a hit. Thirteen bucks for eight pierogi-like vereniki in morel sauce seems a bit steep, even if they are stuffed with pricy Blue Haze cheese from Quebec, their advertised sauerkraut from a Zehr's department store in the Kawarthas (that's some provenance!) missing in action. And that's a hefty price to pay for a small bowl of Israeli couscous topped with strands of spaghetti squash in sharp São Jorge cheese, no matter how delish.
But we'll gladly fork over the cash for lightly cured then seared local trout "gravlax," especially when its paired with perfectly grilled get-'em-while-you-can fiddleheads ($13). An even bigger bargain, chef's Roly Poly Fish Head ($6) sees the entire head of a salmon marinated in maple syrup and soy sauce, then blackened to a crusty char, its familiar pinky flesh giving way to gelatinous cheek, crunchy cartilage and squirting eyeball. Definitely not for the squeamish.
"You're the first table to ever eat the whole thing, and you didn't even use your chopsticks," marvels our server.
There's some hesitation when it's learned that the brandied crème brûlée's ($6) royale comes infused with tobacco. One spoonful later and they're licking the bowl clean. But what happened to those bugs we heard about?
"Insurance companies are scared shitless of crickets," says Isberg. "We were uninsured for two days. They couldn't give me a reason."
So, no more Jiminy jambalaya?
"Apparently not, but I keep testing the limits," laughs Isberg. "If someone asks, I'll happily prepare them. I just have to lie low for a bit."