922 Queen Street West
The word authentic gets bandied about a lot these days – to the point where I wonder if some writers know what it actually means, especially when it comes to food. In our cultural mosaic of a city, where so many cultures have their traditional foods on offer, it’s easy to confuse authentic with watered down versions made to appeal to Caucasians.
Ironically, at Cajú, where they’re upfront about the fact that their dishes have been modified to make a “Canadian” dish, Chef Mario Cassini is more respectful of the foodways of his native Brazil than most places claiming to serve only authentic cuisine.
Hailing from Belo Horizonte in southeast Brazil (a city known worldwide for its food culture and activism), Cassini moved to Canada in 1987 and studied at the School of Hospitality at George Brown. Drawing influence from family members as well as the cuisine of Minas Gerais, the state where Belo Horizonte is located, Cassini was determined to open a restaurant that reflected his culture and that could represent Brazilian cuisine beyond the Latin community.
Like Canada, Brazil is a multi-cultural country, where over the centuries, the native Indian foodways have been influenced by other cultures. The Portuguese and west African slaves brought a variety of ingredients such as pepper, okra, rice and pumpkin, and Italians and Germans who settled in the south also had an effect on the native cuisine that previously centred around fish, cassava, banana, cashew and palm fruits.
Cassini’s dishes focus on the foods of Minas Gerais, also known as Mineiro cuisine, which is simple and hearty food that was eaten by the workers of the area’s many mines and farms. Staples include beans, pork, rice, sugar cane and beef. The area is also known to produce the best cachaca in Brazil, and this sugarcane rum is the main ingredient in the Caipirinha cocktail.
We visited Cajú on a weeknight, only discovering upon our arrival that the famed feijoada, Brazil’s national Saturday dinner dish of stewed black beans with pork tenderloin, beef and chorico sausage, is only available on, of course, Saturday. One of the most renowned dishes of Brazil, feijoada was a creation of the west African slaves and today can also be served with rice, farofa (toasted cassava flour) or greens like kale or collards.
Fortunately our dining companion was from Brazil, and she acted as our tour guide throughout the meal, explaining ingredients and cooking techniques, and describing what updates Chef Cassini might have made to each dish to keep it true to its origins but also appeal to a Canadian customer.
We started with the traditional Caipirinha, one made with the standard lime, the other with lychee juice. These are also too refreshing, as the cachaca goes down very smoothly.
For appetizers we opted for the grilled sardines (sardinas grilhadas) served with mango salsa vinaigrette, then crab cakes (bolhinos de siri). While the Minas Gerais region is a couple hundred miles inland, Chef Cassini also draws influences from the Bahia region, and it seemed wrong to try Brazilian cuisine and not have some fish. Our companion opted for her favourite dish, the grilled eggplant with roasted garlic and passionfruit dressing (Beringela relhada). We also shared a plate of the lovely Brazilian pastries (pasteis) filled with hearts of palm.
Since Brazilian food is also known for being meaty, and since my dear tour guide friend is regularly on my case to go to one of those Brazilian steakhouse places with her, I felt the need to prove myself and have the steak (picanha). Despite being a former vegetarian, I prefer my steak blue rare, and Chef Cassini delivered. I hate when food writers describe something as being “perfect”, but the grilled sirloin delivered to my table was exactly that – gloriously pink and bloody on the inside, char-grilled and savoury on the outside, each bite melting like butter. Paired with cassava root that had been fried like homefries, as well as the really unique farofa that I dipped bits of the meat into, I can honestly say it’s the best steak I’ve ever had.
Equal amounts of happiness came as the grilled pork tenderloin (lombo) served with Feijão Tropeiro (a sauté of beans, diced chouriço and vegetables with cassava flour and pork crackling), and the Bahia stew (Moqueca), a fish stew with tomato and coconut milk broth, arrived at the table.
Dessert was the traditional passionfruit mousse, as well as a chocolate mousse that was almost brownie-like, and according to our dining companion, not especially authentic. But as it was darn good, we finished off both.
Like so many cuisines, Brazilian food is family food, based on simple ingredients, but exactingly prepared. Everything that came out of Cajú’s kitchen was hearty and homey, but also sophisticated – we sat awe-struck at the precision of the brunoise dice of a salsa garnish.
The room itself also feels cozy and unpretentious, yet sleek and sophisticated with a nod to Brazil. Even the flooring is Brazilian cherrywood and the room is a true hidden gem on the West Queen West strip.
Cajú is proof that it is possible to remain true to the authentic roots of a traditional cuisine and still bring it into the 21st century, making it accessible for people of other cultures. While we were wary at first, not knowing what to expect, Chef Cassini won us over with his fabulous dishes and made us true fans of Brazilian cuisine. Our only regret is missing out on the feijoada, and we plan to rectify that as soon as possible.