By Alexandra Forbes
Across from my stool at the bar, ten large hens spit, crackle and roll above bright orange coals. “Mais duas cervejas, Mané,” booms the waiter with the heavy, dark moustache and gold bracelet. Two cold beers slide down the worn Formica counter. He puts them on his tray without a glance at me and hurries away. I have learned to arrive early at the impossibly noisy Chez Doval, Montreal’s most popular Portuguese restaurant, and to greet the waiters in Portuguese. They seem to like Brazilian girls like myself and even take the time to smile back and direct me to the bar. Six o’clock on a Thursday and the roar of customers is already in full swing, while an impatient, watchful line forms in a little corner by the door.
Grilled chicken—spicy or not spicy are the choices—is the pièce de résistance at Chez Doval. Vítor, the chap from Angola tending the massive old grill, pearls of sweat lined up along his forehead, estimates they sell four hundred chickens a month. If you ask the waiter what else there is, you may hear something that sounds like “sardines on the grill” or “veal with vegetables,” but don’t expect a list of side dishes or an opinion on what’s good. No help will be offered in deciphering the short, non-descriptive chalkboard of daily specials—written in Portuguese at lunch and French at dinner—nor will your waiter hang around while you figure out your order. Better choose. Fast.
Many customers, understandably, are unhappy with the service. My friend Nicolas Coté, a regular for six years, says, “It’s cheap and always a good time, but only the Portuguese are rewarded with immediate service.” Toronto’s Globe and Mail, features similar customer complaints on its Web site: “The boss pays no attention to his clients, preferring to sip his wine behind the bar.”
The boss was certainly too busy when I met him to be sipping wine (three dollars a glass, by the way, and quite drinkable). Fernando Rodrigues, thirty-four, was working the bar and espresso machine simultaneously, producing drinks at a rate of four or five per minute. With his typical dark-haired, Mediterranean good looks and impish half-smile, Fernando was also keeping an eye on every plate that left the kitchen. Between rounds, he casually told me the news: he and his two partners João and Carlos (both waiters there for years) had bought the Plateau landmark from the retiring owner, a Portuguese gentleman who owned it for sixteen years.
“What will change now that you have become the new owners?” I ask. Fernando, too busy to even look up as he filled two carafes with house wine: “Nothing. Absolutely nothing.”
My grilled shrimp appetizer all gone—it was crisp, salty and quite good—I order the pork chops with fries; one of the less interesting daily specials, as it turns out. I don’t share the Portuguese taste for overcooking meats and usually find the signature chicken too dry. Fortunately, the cooks have a lighter hand with fish. The sardines are done to perfection, with lots of grill marks on the crunchy skin and fatty white flesh falling off the meager bones. Same with the squid, its charred surface protecting the slippery white flesh, so tasty with a generous squeeze of lemon and some lettuce leaves. I finish by mopping up the juices with a warm chunk of bread. It is food that cries out for a glass of cold beer, and the combination leaves me woozy and happy, like at a Sunday family lunch in Brazil. At the end of my meal, João Gonçalves, the gentle-mannered, blue-eyed new co-owner, brings me two pastéis de nata, dreamy tartlets filled with an almost too sweet egg custard and sprinkled with cinnamon—they aren’t on the menu and waiters rarely mention that a fresh batch has come in.
Yet who cares that the waiters (all male, bien entendu) rarely smile and never say “Have a nice day.” The service may be brusque, but it doesn’t seem to discourage the crowds waiting for a table. Most customers seem happy just for the cheap grilled fare and cheap wine. It is no easy task to keep a dining room humming seven days a week, but the three partners seem to have what it takes. As Fernando puts it, “A restaurant is like a woman—if you leave her alone, someone will come along when you are away and take her.”