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DAVID NELSON ON RESTAURANTS

Copacabana's Brazilian Menu Adds Up to Rio Inconsistency

February 25, 1988|DAVID NELSON

Oh, Rio, Rio by the sea-o, Rio de Janeiro, what a wonderful place!

--From "Flying Down to Rio,"

RKO Pictures, 1932

By all accounts, Rio de Janeiro is a wonderful place, but the closest many of us are likely to get to this sun-washed Brazilian hot spot is via late-show revivals of the classic Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers flick that brought Latin high life to Depression-era America.

It could be otherwise. The new Copacabana Restaurant of Rio de Janeiro (as it grandly bills itself; there is no actual connection to the Brazilian city) claims it stands at the ready to make Cariocas, as Rio natives call themselves, of us all.

However, the cooking at this refurbished restaurant on the edge of Lindbergh Field is no more likely to provide us spiritual transport to Rio than it is to Newark.

Named for one of Rio's most famous beaches, Copacabana occupies the spacious Pacific Highway quarters that long housed Boom Trenchard's but that have been empty since Boom's successors (remember the ill-fated Tuxedo Charlie's?) failed to make the grade.

The restaurant does make a sincere effort to capture the spirit of Rio by offering live Brazilian music in the bar--it floats, sometimes overbearingly, through the dining rooms--and a decor of bright Carnival colors accented by endless rows of pennants.

Owned by a quartet made up of a retired admiral, a doctor, restaurateur Larry Barnes and former San Diego Padres President Ballard Smith, Copacabana makes its main culinary thrust by offering its version of the traditional Brazilian churrascario .

A waiter perhaps best described this meal by calling it "an all-you-can-eat Brazilian meat extravaganza." While it certainly would horrify vegetarians, this meal, at least when properly executed, should bring a smile to the face of anyone who believes that a succulent roast is the ne plus ultra of good eating.

The Brazilian churrascario is related both by name and nature to the Argentinian churrasco (of which a good example can be found at the Puerta del Sol in the Zona Rio district of Tijuana), which consists of a thick, rare steak doused, while sizzling, with a complicated herbal dressing. The Brazilian meal instead offers many meats, skewered and roasted on a special type of rotisserie and carved at the table.

The herbal dressing does not enter the dish, or at any rate does not appear at Copacabana, where the beef rib-eye roast, pork roast, meaty chicken thighs and cubed beef kebabs all would benefit from some definite, deliberate seasoning.

The one really flavorful item among the meats is the linguica sausage, a spicy, Portuguese-style treat that stands quite nicely on its own and is the--probably unintended--star of Copacabana's churrascario .

The churrascario , which costs $14.95 per person, is much more than meat. True to Brazilian form, the meal includes a great array of side dishes, notably black beans, raisin-studded rice and savory fried bananas, all of which are passed family-style. Among other dishes are sections of corn on the cob and unfortunate potato wedges, fried with the skins on and rather greasy from the experience.

The dinner begins with a trio of salads passed at the table, of which at least two, the coleslaw and the cucumbers in sour cream with dill, seem unlikely to be found on a Brazilian table. The third, a Caesar salad, was described by one waiter as "the best Caesar you ever ate," a presumptuous comment at the least (how could he possibly know just what triumphant Caesars his guests might have encountered?) and a rather dry salad at best.

The meats varied from one visit to the next, with the roast beef, the best offering of the first expedition, weighing in as the loser of the second trip. Generally speaking, all acquired a toothsome, pleasing crust from their sojourn on the rotisserie, but resemblances ended there.

The beef seemed better and more flavorful the first time around, even though it was quite well done; the second visit found it rare but so virtually flavorless that one guest suggested filling up on the black beans.

On both occasions, a small roast speared on a metal skewer appeared at the table, and the waiter sliced generous portions for each guest. (As the roasts shrink in size after each carving, they are returned to the broiler to reacquire their elegant crusts.)

The pork roast was tough and greasy the first time, tender and greasy the second; on both occasions, fatty cuts were used. This may in fact be traditional, but if so, it is nonetheless unappealing.

The meaty, juicy chicken thighs seemed relatively virtuous compared to the fancier meats, and the beef skewer, dry and tasteless on one occasion, was much nicer when it had undergone the preliminary marinade that tradition evidently specifies.

Everything was offered in unlimited quantity, and on both occasions the guests asked for more of the faultless sausages.

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