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RESTAURANTS / MAX JACOBSON

Ethnic Stew in an All-American Pot

January 03, 1991|MAX JACOBSON

When it comes to sheer exoticism, I can't think of a country to compare with Brazil.

A fine taste for the exotic is reflected in its cities (shimmering Rio, teeming Sao Paulo), its ethnic mix (a rich, multicontinental stew of Indians, Asians, Africans and Europeans) its music (the graceful, slithery samba and the sensual bossa nova), and even its food. Brazilian cuisine is lusty and spicy, heavy on meat and seafood.

But who knows where to get Brazilian cuisine around here? And why, in the great cultural stewpot we call Southern California, has this cuisine of wholesome soups, broiled meats and hearty casseroles not caught on like a house afire?

Whatever the reason, Yolie Piccoli aims to change it. She's pretty exotic herself, a Sao Paulo native of Italian extraction who has lived in Las Vegas for the past 20 years. She opened her first restaurant there--Yolie's Brazilian Steakhouse--four years ago. Now she's packaged up the concept and literally taken it on the road. Her Irvine restaurant opened in July.

I should mention that she operates a specialty restaurant. Most Brazilians subsist on black beans (feijoes, in Portuguese) and rice, combining them with meat and sausage in a national dish known as feijoada (mellifluously pronounced fezh-WA-da).

Yolie specializes in a relatively obscure method of cooking known as churrasco (shoo-RAHS-co), in which meats are cooked on swordlike skewers, then literally sliced from the skewer onto your plate. Feijoada, the only other Brazilian main course dish she serves, is available on Friday and Saturday nights.

Strangely enough, the restaurant's design is basically all-American, right down to a brick-lined window affording a view of the kitchen's mesquite-filled barbecue pit. (And if mesquite is Brazilian, Pele is a Swede.)

The dining area is essentially a loft space, occupying the top level of a post-modern shopping mall, and the sense of vast, eerie space overwhelms you as you enter. It's about 20 feet from the floor of the restaurant to the ceiling, and the ground level of the mall, visible over a balcony lined with uprooted tropical plants, seems equally far down.

But once you're seated at your table, the wicker-lined chairs and green polyester tablecloths seem anything but foreboding or exotic. Start things off with a frosty caipirinha, a Brazilian aperitif made from a sugar cane brandy known as cachaca (ka-SHA-sa). It tastes a little like a margarita minus the salt--sweet, big on lime juice and deceptively powerful--but it goes down a whole lot easier.

Dinner is a set affair at a set price. It's basically all you can eat, beginning with a choice of salad or black bean soup, then progressing to a parade of meats and side dishes. Waiters come around with various sabres, plant the point on your table, and then slice some meat off for you. Seconds on a favorite are yours for the asking. Bom approveito (that's Portuguese for bon appetit) !

You get more than you bargain for with this dinner, but I'd still advise you not to miss the house scampi, a special appetizer that can be shared by up to four people. It's a Brazilian version of prawns in garlic sauce, and everyone at my table literally fought over the last scraps.

I'd decided on the feijoada while the rest of my friends had the churrasco. I'm glad my mother wasn't there. I could finish only about a third of it.

Yolie's feijoada is served in a mammoth casserole dish, consisting of stewed black beans, pork spare ribs, linguica (an oily Portuguese sausage) and carne seca, a gristly dried beef that I'm told is imported from South America.

There's a specific way to eat feijoada, and Yolie (or Carmen, her beautiful Brazilian buddy) will come to the table for a demonstration. Simply take two of the guarnicoes (side dishes) that come along with it, some rice a la Rio (a mild pilaf with carrot and celery) and some farofa (fried flour from the manioc root), then mix them all up together. The rice lessens the richness, while the farofa adds texture. Clever, those Brazilians.

But if you're like most people, you'll have the meats. You get seven: sausage, turkey (wrapped in bacon), spring chicken, top sirloin, New York steak, leg of lamb and pork tenderloin. All of them have been marinated in Brazilian fashion, and all of them taste just great.

The turkey is a bit dry but otherwise delicious. The spring chicken is crusty and juicy and the red meats are moist and flavorful. Only the sausage seems a letdown--a garden variety Italian that seems out of place.

Then there are those guarnicoes. In addition to the rice and farofa, you'll get fried potatoes (in huge chunks), mushy squares of polenta, stewed vegetables and wonderful, sugar-sweet fried bananas. The bananas, in a spicy syrup oozing butter, are particularly addictive.

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