by Malcolm Jolley

Let this post prove that while food writing may or may not be an art, it is certainly not a science. For instance, I’d like to tell you how much I paid for the grilled lunch special at Maria’s Sports Bar in Little Portugal recently, and I’d like to tell you exactly what kind of fish I was served, but I am less than precisely clear on both matters. In any event, a close examination of the handwritten bill (in Portuguese) suggests that the fish, which I am pretty sure was branzino, or European Sea Bass, was around $14.99. And I am very sure that it was  cooked and presented in a way that makes it worth checking out.

The American food writer, and expert on Portugese cuisine, David Leite once told me that the reason Portuguese food never became mainstream on this side of the Atlantic, despite relatively high numbers of immigrants, is that “it would be considered an insult to your wife or mother to have to go out to pay for a meal”. Getting a drink, however, was perfectly cool, hence Portugese neighbourhoods, whether in Toronto or Boston, tend to have far more bars than restuarants. If a bar serves a little food, than that’s ok, I presume. And while the grilled fish at Maria’s is superlative, there is no mistaking the joint for Scaramouche – it’s a bar’s bar with beer and sports posters, old diner type bare tables and chrome-rimmed chairs, and a few big TV’s showing satellite feeds of European soccer games.

I’m not sure what Luso-Canadians call “Anglos”, like Jamie Drummond and me, or whether there’s a rough equivalent to the Italo-Canadian mangia cake. If there is, we definitely, and self-consciously exhibit it on our occasional lunch meetings at Maria’s, whose other customers tend to be small groups of not-ironically-mustachioed men. Still, while our general reception from our fellow patrons might not be altogether friendly, it’s not unfriendly and the welcome from the waitresses has been warm, despite some language incompatibility. It was Drummond who suggested we try Maria’s out, a couple of years ago. He’d got the tip from his friend, chef Paul Boehmer, who lived around the corner and had the fish special as often as he could – with good reason.

The fish special is a whole fish that has been split and cleaned, but not de-boned. It’s grilled quickly, simply and well, so that the edges have a bit of char and the body is golden, but the flesh still moist. What elevates it into the realm of superlative dining is the crust of salt that envelopes the whole thing on both sides – with a drizzle of olive oil (provided on the table) and a squeeze of lemon (you may have to ask for a wedge) it comes with it’s own amazing seasoning. With the fish comes simply boiled potatoes, a green (often broccoli), some pickles and olives and a hard boiled egg. No one leaves hungry.

There is a perfectly serviceable selection of cheap Portuguese wine on offer at Maria’s Sports Bar, and bargain priced local and imported beers (bottles or draft) that are served really cold. In the summer, there’s also a patio on College Street. If only there were more Portugese bars spread around town.

Maria’s Sports Bar is at 1135 College Street, just west of Dufferin. Click here for a map and contact information.