If you didn't make it down to Rio for Carnaval, but still hanker for a big plate of feijoada (the national beans and meat dish), don't look for it at Terra Brazilis.
The city's newest Brazilian eatery plays samba on its sound system, but its cooking is far from folk-fare. Chef Alberto Petrolino aims at nova cozinha brasiliera -- "new Brazilian cuisine" -- featuring a creative interpretation of traditional dishes you're more likely to find in a chic Rio restaurant than a food stand on the sands of Ipanema. While the city's other three Brazilian restaurants sway toward the African flavors and tropical ingredients of the spirited culinary region of Bahia, Terra Brazilis emphasizes the cuisine's cosmopolitan, Pan-European side.
It's fitting that Terra Brazilis has opened in the changing neighborhood at the western edge of the "new" Hayes Valley, the stretch of upscale commerce that burgeoned when the freeway came down. Trendy new restaurants and home decor emporia abut an older, economically struggling residential neighborhood. Lighting up the corner across the street from Terra Brazilis is SuppenkYche, where a lively young crowd gobbled wurst and glugged lager, while in the doorway of a laundromat next door, an older gentleman relaxed on a folding chair, savoring a tall Colt 45 and chatting with passing neighbors as he waited for his wash.
We arrived several minutes before our reserved time, so while our table was cleared, the hostess gave us the unusual wine list to peruse. It offers a multitude of little-known Portuguese dinner wines, along with a scattering of mainly higher-priced French and California bottlings. A separate beer list highlights two Portuguese choices, Crystal and Sangre, both light-flavored hot-weather brews. I ventured happily on a clean-tasting, vivacious aperitif of chilled white Niepoort port ($4).
Sitting at the small front bar, we had a chance to look over the room, noting the long white-naped tables. Hanging on the light-red brick walls were three bright paintings that married cubist composition to a folk-art palette. At precisely our appointed hour, we were seated at a table with a hard, pewlike wooden banquette minimally padded with throw pillows, and quickly discovered another interesting detail: The appetizer plates are endearingly tacky Souvenir-of-San-Francisco dishes from Pier 1.
Adorning this china are spiffy new versions of classic Brazilian starters. Bolinhos de bacalhau ($6.75), torpedo-shaped croquettes of rehydrated salt cod and potato, had rich Yukon Golds for the spud element, and were served atop a thin, subtly sweet orange sauce, with a ramekin of bright green basil oil for dipping. Even more original was Cuscou Paulista ($7). This "couscous So Paolo style" resembled no couscous I've encountered on any continent: It was a big, baked ball of goodies, including rock shrimp, tilapia, sardines, perhaps wild mushrooms, and other tiny, titillating tidbits of unproven identity. Every bite was a surprise and a treat. Kibe ($5.75) is an ancient Syrian/Lebanese concoction of bulgur-coated ground beef croquettes, which Brazil (along with Merida, Mexico) has wholly adopted. Terra's little kibe were luscious, served with a lively minisalad of shredded radish and mint, along with a chimuchurri-style dip.
A spicier version of the dip accompanied Mandioca Frita ($5), which bore only a passing resemblance to normal yuca fries: Sliced unevenly to follow their natural shapes, the cassava roots were apparently oven-fried (like that SoCal gourmet creation, Mojo potatoes); the outsides were greaselessly crisped and the insides were soft. The lone soup was caldo verde ($6), and since we were eating "family style," our impeccably gracious server arranged to have the kitchen divide a portion into individual little bowls. It proved a ravishing revision of Portugal's peasant chowder of potato, kale, and sausage. Here, the potatoes had been refined into a creamy puree, decorated with an emerald-green streak of pureed kale; draped over each bowl's edge was a long, shrimp-shaped slice of beautifully browned, very smoky linguisa. Unlike most restaurant soups, the liquid was blessedly a bit undersalted, ready for a tiny pinch of coarse sea salt from the table cellar to give it life. Adding to our thorough enjoyment of these and later dishes was a bottle of Niepoort Redoma ($21), a dry fruity white (made from a blend of several Portuguese varietals) that went beautifully with the cuisine.
We soon noticed an even more significant difference from most restaurant appetizers: Instead of filling us up, their light textures and subtle flavors actually awoke our appetites. "Bring on the entrees!" we might have roared (but didn't, of course) -- and to be heard, we'd have had to roar indeed, because samba music had just started blaring from the sound system. "I love Carnaval, but it belongs in the street, not in a restaurant!" shouted one of my companions.
The entrees, fortunately, were hearty (and served on soberer plates). Our favorite, Costeleta de Porco ($15.25), was a large pork chop given the Cinderella treatment. Grilled perfectly to order (medium rare), it was stuffed with "drunken prunes" and couve, collards cooked just tender but still brilliant green. (With such tough greens, this is harder than you might think.) More couve sat atop sliced purple Peruvian potatoes, with sweet roasted garlic cloves dotting a nondescript cornstarch-thickened sauce.
Pato Laqueado ($15) was a lean, dark-fleshed confit of Muscovy duck leg, the skinned flesh crusted with cilantro-spiked crumbs, on a bed of firm black beans deliciously drenched in cilantro and dotted with sweet little mango cubes. Less exciting Rabada ($14.75) had shreds of braised oxtail arranged around a cylinder of bland polenta brightened by sliced wild mushrooms, over a thin, tasty pomegranate sauce. Off the bones, the oxtail meat wholly lost its character, tasting like any cut of braising beef.
More deeply disappointing was Vatapa ($17.50), one of Bahia's most celebrated dishes. The authentic version is a rich African-influenced melange of cashews, hot pepper, coconut milk, bread crumbs, red palm oil, and smoked dried shrimp. Since nobody else in town offers it, I had great hopes when I saw it on the menu, but in Terra's version, a leaning tower of terminally bland risotto supported an edifice of three tasty, salty slices of tilapia (a mild white fish) and three plump, buttery tiger prawns. The scant sauce at the bottom was pleasant, but far from the lush, spicy earthiness of the original.
There are just four desserts ($5-6). One is a virgin creme brulee, utterly rich, pure, and thick, free from froufrou flavorings. Another is an airy crepe filled with miraculously shapely mango slivers (I can't even excavate the pit without mangling the fruit), surrounded by light, chocolate-streaked creme. A chocolate ice cream copa at a neighboring table looked like a meal in itself, covered with bananas, nuts, and who-knows-whats. There's also a tapioca pudding. None are exclusively Brazilian, but then, Terra Brazilis is more Brazilian in inspiration than execution.
Whether you've actually vacationed in Rio or have merely enlisted other local restaurants to help fulfill your dreams, you won't find familiar dishes cooked here in the familiar ways. Like South America's "magical realism" in fiction and film, the Brazilian-ness of Terra Brazilis lies more in the spirit than the flesh.