When Cafe do Brasil moved recently from Mission Street to Seventh and Market, the change wasn't just in location but in attitude. Midway between the Orpheum and Golden Gate theaters, the new premises are brighter and more spacious, while the menu has grown more expansive, with several added dishes on weekends and an exciting new prix-fixe dinner. Thursdays through Sundays, the Cafe is the first and only restaurant in town to offer Brazil's legendary meatfest, the churrasco rodizio ($16).
A rodizio is a combination barbecue and buffet -- not merely all you can eat, but all you might want to taste at one meal. A specialty of the owner's hometown, S‹o Paolo, rodizio is currently a raging fad in New York City, where it's nearly as popular with born New Yorkers as it is with the sizable Brazilian immigrant population. Vast, noisy, barnlike rodizio restaurants cater to thousands of diners at once, serving buffets of a dozen or more side dishes, followed by multitudinous offerings of barbecued meat.
Since San Francisco is barely a tenth the size of S‹o Paolo or New York, Cafe do Brasil's rodizio is appropriately downscaled, too -- which is probably just as well. The current array is as much as most of us can taste at one meal.
With its clientele of local families, Nordic tourists, and theater-going couples, the Cafe's atmosphere is surely more relaxing, too. Mellow bossa nova classics float over well-spaced tables and banquettes in a simple, cheerful dining room painted the gold and green of the Brazilian flag.
The Cafe's rodizio begins with a small buffet of vegetables and starches. There's a delightful "combo salad" ($8.25 a la carte) of chunks of chicken, tuna, and hearts of palm in a creamy dressing that gracefully lets the main ingredients upstage it. Firm-tender squares of lightly sauteed onion and red pepper adorn chunks of eggplant in a clean-flavored ratatouille, and soupy, clove-flavored black beans are dotted with sausage rounds. There are two rice pilafs (one with green peas, the other with small chunks of meat), and couscous, and of course there's farofa, the toasted manioc flour that Brazilians sprinkle over everything, the way health-food fanatics used to strew wheat germ. I confess that farofa's appeal still eludes me, but I'm sure it must add nutrients.
Once you've returned from the buffet with your laden plate, a chef emerges from the kitchen bearing spears and sword and starts carving at your table. First to arrive are sweet-smoky hunks of Louisiana links, barbecued on a spit so that their insides cook alongside their outsides, which lends a lighter texture and more piquant flavor than pan-frying. Along with the links you receive a huge hunk of chicken (ours was a thigh) that's been brined before barbecuing, so the meat is imbued with moisture as well as an alluring saltiness. A few minutes later, the chef returns with brined barbecued beef tri-tip. Californians may recognize the cut and its flavorings -- emphatic salt and a light trace of garlic -- from our own famed tri-tip extravaganza, the Santa Maria barbecue. The chef slices off as much as you want, working from the crisped exterior to the rare center. Soon he returns with the finale, a brined pork loin, spit-roasted well-done.
Shunners of red meat will find plenty of alternatives, with several vegetarian, chicken, and seafood entrees, including another outstanding weekend special, Vatapa Com Camarao ($15), from the African-influenced cuisine of Bahia, available Saturdays and Sundays. Large sweet prawns are bathed in coconut milk, fish stock, and red palm oil (just in case you're short of cholesterol), while in the center of the dish is a soft mound of soaked bread. The accompaniments are moist, fluffy Brazilian-style rice and a side of top-notch couve, crisp-tender sauteed collard shreds so fresh and so carefully treated that there's barely a hint of harshness. As with most local renditions of Bahian cuisine, the Cafe's vatapa is decidedly short on chilis compared to the hometown version; ask for hot sauce if you want it spicier.
The house hot sauce -- fresh, herbal, but just barely spicy -- comes automatically with the Feijoada Completa ($11), available nightly. The national dish of Brazil, feijoada is a bowlful of smoky black beans, chopped sausage, and bits of whatever other meats are at hand, plus rice, couve, farofa, and orange slices. The night we tried it, a thin fried pork chop was included, too. The Cafe's bean stew is workmanlike but rises to a rewarding level of complexity when treated to a liberal application of the cilantro-spiked salsa.
Transfer of the liquor license from the old address to the new is still pending. Consequently, the current wine list is minimal and generic ($3.50/$13), but a cold Corona is better suited to this cuisine anyway. (The other beers are pretty generic, too -- Heineken and Bud.) Or you can choose from a half-dozen house-made smoothies ($2.95); the one called the "Tropical" is gorgeous, tasting like a virgin colada piqued by mysterious exotic fruits.
Given the large, rich main courses, you might think twice about ordering appetizers, an assortment of little stuffed goodies equivalent to Brazilian dim sum. Their low pricing, though, may turn your eyes bigger than your stomach -- you can try any three for $5 or all six for $9.90. My favorite was the corn kernel turnover (pastel), with its slightly sweet vegetable filling fried in a crumb-rolled, glutinous taro-batter shell. The chicken croquette (coxina) has the same batter surrounding shreds of rather dry, salty herbed chicken, but the seasoning comes to life with a gulp of Corona. The empada is a micro-mini chicken pie in a "sandy" dough, while a simple, pleasant cheese turnover (pastel Samuel) is a sophisticated mini-quesadilla, remade as a flute-edged crescent of flaky pie dough. I didn't much care for the rather grainy salt-cod croquette (bolina de bacalhau) nor the quibe (a version of Lebanese kibbeh), a ball of intensely salty ground beef and mint thickly rolled in bulgur wheat. A lighter starter would be one of the several refreshing salads ($5.75 to $8.25) featuring hearts of palm with mixed greens, spinach, and/or tomatoes in a tangy vinaigrette.
Brazilians generally like their sweets very sweet. Quindin ($2.50, or free with the rodizio) is the Brazilian national dessert and emphatically fits that bill: It's a sugary loose cornmeal pudding abounding in shredded coconut and whole cloves. A creamy, sweet-sour passion-fruit mousse ($3.50) is a cosmopolitan dessert that goes beautifully with a cafezinha, a demi-tasse of mellow Brazilian coffee. Other choices include Brazilian flan ($3.50) made with condensed milk, and several ice cream extravaganzas ($3-5), including two sundaes.
You can eat richly and well at Cafe do Brasil and still have funds left over for Rent. If you've got a curtain to catch, though, better tell your server when you place your order. The service is cordial, but some nights the kitchen runs on Rio time, not the New York minute.