Nicaragua has been through a lot in the last twenty or thirty (or hundred) years. Waves of revolution, guerrilla war, at least one major natural disaster. Not surprisingly, many Nicaraguans have found themselves here in Toronto as a consequence: more surprisingly, there is only one restaurant that reflects this presence — La Bella Managua at 872 Bloor Street West.
It’s a small place around Bloor and Ossington, and early on a Saturday night (6pm) the Vicarious Travel Society arrived with no reservation, as is our free-wheeling way, frankly expecting no trouble getting a seat. Margie and her 11 year old daughter actually got there at about 10 to six, and our assumption that Nicaraguans probably eat late proved unfounded. The place was packed, and when two of our original party didn’t show, the additional two-spot table was instantly removed from ours and snapped up by new arrivals. Whatever difficulty there might have been getting a restaurant this specialized off the ground, it appears to be well on its way now.
It’s a pleasant enough space: clean and orderly, white tablecloths with a blue throw, red cloth napkins, straightforward chairs, the occasional tropical mural on the walls and some central american bric-a-brac including a smallish stuffed marlin. Service was not so much prompt, but immediate, so as a stalling tactic we put in an order for some Nicaraguan drinks (a “Cacao” and a “Tamarind”) and the mixed fish and shrimp ceviche. The kitchen appeared to be rammed but efficient nevertheless, and a short time later the ceviche and drinks turned up:
The cacao is the drink on the left, the Tamarind is on the right. The Cacao was deceptively milky looking but carried a rich and silky chocolate punch. The Tamarind was, well, tamarindy but a little too much sugar didn’t allow the sourness of the tamarind to come through. The ceviche came poised in a little bowl, accompanied by a small hill of mandolin- thin slices of plaintain that had been deep fried to non-greasy crispness. The chopped fish and prawns were combined with red and green peppers, red onion, a little tomato, and a sharp lemony dressing that pulled it all together. There was a fan of freshly sliced avocado as well, and the ideal combination was plaintain chip+bit of avocado+little heap of ceviche mixture on top, consumed like a miniature tostada. The salty crunch of the chip with the soft butteriness of the avocado set off against the acid of the ceviche was refreshing and pleasant and we quickly demolished it while waiting for the rest of our order: Vigoron, Quesadilla, Camarones a la Sabana, and the fish of the day (red snapper). From what I can tell of La Bella Managua’s web presence, red snapper appears to be in permanent residence as the fish of the day.
Chop chop. The mains arrived without delay. First the Quesadilla:
which was a well executed, but fairly classic quesadilla. Stuffed with Monterey Jack, green onions and a house made salsa, more salsa came on the side with the obligatory sour cream. It had been fried to a glorious, toasty brown but because of all the salsa inside, proved a bit of a challenge as finger food. The 11 year old toughed it out. Next thing out was the camarones:
Prawns, fried quickly with white wine, red and green bell peppers and onions, with fresh avocado and a small pile of white rice girdled round with plantains in a slightly different form than before. This time they were cross sections, cut a little thicker, crushed and fried. The prawns were a reasonable size, not horribly overcooked, and everything tasted even better kicked up with an innocuous looking sauce served on the side in a small white ceramic bowl. Runny and transparent, there seemed to be minced garlic floating around on the top, but once administered to the food, the presence of habanero became unmistakably clear.
The red snapper of the day was served whole, on the bone:
with nearly the same sides as the Camarones. Deeply scored with a knife, and rubbed roughly with a little mild chile, maybe a little cinnamon even, it had been shallow fried and came with a chopped fresh avocado salad, basically a guacamole that hadn’t been mashed. The crispy pieces of white fish and complex but familiar flavours of the avocado salad complemented each other really well – this might have been the best dish of the night.
Then we came back to dry land, with the Vigoron:
This was described on the menu as “yucca and deep fried crispy pork topped with cabbage salad” and it looked good and impressively tall, but it wasn’t exactly that: the pork was in fact pork skin, or chicharron as it is sometimes called. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it is rather a lot of pork cracklings to be sitting down to for a full meal. Luckily the kitchen is careful with the temperature of the fat, and this dish didn’t come off as greasy which it very easily could have, but it was just a little rich, even tempered with a simple salad of very finely sliced cabbage and carrots. The yucca was buried well underneath and was prepared more or less as is: starchy, white, basic sustenance. The habanero spiked stealth hot sauce sparked it all up somewhat (not to mention created havoc in my sinuses) but there was no getting away from the fact that I couldn’t consume an entire plate of pork cracklings in one sitting. Much of it went into a take out box and while interesting, I don’t think I would order this again unless I was in the mood for a giant bar snack.
La Bella Managua has some house made desserts, including Tre Leches Cake, Buneulos and rice pudding, but we passed due to the exciting proximity of Bakerbots and the friendly and polite, but slightly stressed demeanour of our server who clearly wanted the table back sooner rather than later. She hoped to see us back again, she said, under better circumstances. Whatever that meant: was Daniel Ortega and his entourage about to arrive? Something seemed to be going on but maybe it was just another crazy Saturday night for La Bella Managua. They deserve their success — overall the food was fresh and well prepared and great value (our most expensive dish being $13.95), and we missed several things on the menu that looked really good such as the Nacatamales and the Carne Asada. It seemed to present a good overview of Nicaraguan cuisine but as La Bella Managua is the sole curator of this subject matter in Toronto, they’ve got a great deal of editorial control.
La Bella Managua, 872 Bloor Street West
$85.00 for three adults and one young adult, tax, tip and regional drinks included.