Rio de Janeiro is one of those great cities that works its way into your plasma and lingers there, time and distance notwithstanding. The place positively thrums with charisma, captivating music, and an irresistible coming-together of jungle, mountain, and curving white seashore. One primary aspect of Rio's (and Brazil's) appeal is that it's a completely different experience from the rest of Latin America. While neighboring countries embrace the language and foodstuffs of Spain and the continent's myriad native cultures, Brazilians chat in Portuguese, move to the beat of the samba, and inhabit a multicultural society not unlike the United States' but with a libidinous abandon largely lacking among its more devout neighbors. Of special interest to itinerant gastronomes is the Brazilian diet, with its dishes fragrant with coconut, palm oil, and other African ingredients that have adapted well to Brazil's ecosystems and are seldom encountered in Argentina, Bolivia, Peru ... or San Francisco.
Now is the ideal time to celebrate the sounds, spirit, food, and drink of Brazil as Carnaval (culminating February 24) turns an already rollicking destination into a pleasure dome of over-the-top merriment. Descended from Entrudo, an old Portuguese pre-Lenten celebration, Brazil's wingding makes its North American cousin, Mardi Gras, look positively anemic. Satisfying a Rio craving 7,000 miles from the source is problematic, but Bossa Nova, a stylish Brazilian restaurant, brings a little bit of the Tropic of Capricorn to foggy S.F.
Nestled behind a nondescript entrance on an edgy stretch of SOMA, the place at first glance feels more like a dance club than a restaurant, with thundering acoustics, a thriving bar scene, and a late-evening bridge-and-tunnel clientele. But at its quieter moments, say before eight on a Sunday evening, there's live bossa nova to stroke the senses and complement a menu of largely authentic and delectable Brazilian specialties.
The venue itself is a studied yet effective mishmash of images and textures: distressed-concrete and sponged-apricot walls; rough-plank tables topped with glass; a wall of cloverleaf cement blocks backlit in orange and red. A communal high table and 12 stools run down the center of the candlelit room, an L-shaped blond wood bar dispenses caipirinhas and mojitos, and flanking the entrance is a small, cushiony lounge area overseen by an enormous wooden cross carved with bas-relief monkeys and tropical foliage. Even the restroom is a destination, with its hollowed-boulder washbasin, gleaming black-stone tilework, and vintage Rio street map wallpaper.
Given the dearth of Brazilian restaurants in the greater Bay Area, it's surprising how well Bossa Nova's food lives up to its decor. The cheese bread ($4.50), for instance, is a wonderfully moist, chewy version of one of the old country's favorite snack foods, tiny warm-from-the-oven rolls of cassava dough and melted queijo branco. Despite its "small plate" designation, peixe frito ($7.50), a Shabbat dish from the Jewish Portuguese repertoire, is a big, overflowing bowl of two dozen or so three-inch smelts, fried to the crunchy-briny stage, devoured bones and all, and as irresistible as a sack of potato chips. There are four examples of Brazil's wildly popular churrasco (barbecue) cookery on the appetizer menu: The ribeye ($10.50), two skewers of grilled sweet peppers and thick cubes of rich, smoky, medium-rare beef, is one of the better protein options available around town, especially when drizzled with one of the platter's three dipping salsas (mango, scallion, and tomatillo). Two other traditional starters, gloppy salt cod croquettes ($8.50) and mushy deep-fried corn and cheese turnovers ($7.50), aren't as successful, but the plantain chips ($4.50) are a nice, crunchy, slightly sweet alternative to Doritos.
Feijoada completa, Brazil's national dish, is an elaborate, belly-expanding preparation of black beans cooked with fresh and jerked beef; sausage and bacon; and a pig's ears, feet, and tail; served with rice, collard greens, sliced oranges, and farofa (manioc meal), and usually followed by a long nap. Bossa Nova prepares a simpler yet entirely satisfying version ($11) without the variety of meats but with just enough robust sausage and fat-streaked bacon to give the beans a wonderfully rich and smoky flavor. Another entrée, moqueca ($20), is even better: a bountiful seafood stew of meaty prawns, tender whitefish, and a dozen plump, luscious mussels on the half shell, semisubmerged in a dreamy-creamy, slightly spicy broth of onion, garlic, peppers, and coconut milk. Make sure to order a side of the risottolike coconut rice ($4.50) to go with it.
There are three items on the dessert menu. The flan ($6.50) is a perfectly soft and luscious example of the genre, with toasted coconut sprinkled on top and a drizzle of syrup adding a nice burnt-sugar edge. The molten chocolate cake ($7) is more gummy than molten, but there's nothing wrong with its rich, dark, bittersweet flavor. The caramelized banana slices piled in a martini glass with some vanilla ice cream and a hint of rum ($7) are nothing special.
The minimal wine list features a dozen vintages, including a Fausto, a Brazilian Merlot; and a Filus Malbec from neighboring Argentina. All are available by the glass. The bar's primary focus, though, is on cachaça, the potent Brazilian sugarcane brandy, and its finest showcase, the caipirinha, which in the past decade has assumed its place as one of the most popular cocktails in the world. Properly prepared, its sweet, potent, lime-scented cool can evoke the sunny sands of Ipanema like nothing this side of an Eliete Negreiros LP. Unhappily and surprisingly, in Bossa Nova's rendition ($8) the lime wedges are barely crushed, there isn't enough syrup and ice in the glass, and the firewater is poured with too free a hand. Two fresh-fruit variations (blood orange and strawberry basil, $10 each) somehow come closer to the genuine article, even if they don't taste much like the fruits in question. You might want to settle instead for a shot of cachaça, a wedge of lime, and a packet of C&H.
"I can't get her outta my plasma," Frank Sinatra once said of Ava Gardner, and when you're sitting at one of Bossa Nova's rustic old tables listening to "Dindi," sipping an Agua Luca, and inhaling the fragrance of coconut and sweet pepper, the virus — chronic, narcotic, and absolutely gratifying — reasserts itself splendidly.