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EATS: Restaurant Reviews and News | COUNTER INTELLIGENCE

Boldly Brazilian

Itana Bahia confidently serves many of the South American country's most exotic dishes.

April 30, 1998|CHARLES PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

I know "fofoca" means "gossip," technically. That's what Portuguese dictionaries say it means. But the Brazilians I've known--somehow that's been a large number, or seemed like a large number, anyway--have used it for something more like "conversation where at least three people are talking at once."

You've got to love Brazilians, those exuberant, wisecracking Brooklynites of the Latin world. They're probably how we Americans would have turned out if we'd started as a Portuguese colony.

There are even parallels in food. Like us, they eat a lot of straightforward meat-and-potatoes (or rather, meat-and-rice) dishes. Most Brazilian restaurants around here are all-you-can-eat steakhouses where the waiters bring out skewer after skewer of roasted meats and the condiment bar usually includes, for some reason, chicken stroganoff.

But the area of Bahia is the home of an exotic, largely African cuisine, making it sort of the Louisiana of Brazil. When Brazilians want to show off food unique to their country, they cook Bahian dishes. Various restaurants have taken this tack around here over the years, but none, as far as I know, as emphatically as Itana Bahia, a tiny West Hollywood place decorated with strange Brazilian musical instruments.

Take vatapa--a grayish manioc mush sweet from coconut milk and funky with dried shrimp. This is Bahian food at its most challenging. A more cautious Brazilian restaurant wouldn't serve something so forcefully exotic as an automatic side dish to entrees (though you do have the option of plantains instead).

Still, most things are easy to like. Casquinha de siri, for instance, is a lush, irresistible dish of crab meat baked with coconut milk and dende^ oil, an African palm oil that gives dishes a peculiar meaty flavor and an arresting orange color. The name is pronounced ca-SKEEN-ya de see-REE, by the way.

There are a couple of croquette-type appetizers. Coxinha (that's ko-SHEEN-ya) are little pear-shaped chicken croquettes, but bolinho de bacalhau (bo-LEEN-yo de bacal-YOW) are about the best codfish cakes I've ever had, light inside, dark brown and crunchy on the outside.

The croquettes are basically very European, as are the soups of the day--carroty broth with diced vegetables in it, for example--but some appetizers have a decidedly indigenous air. Pa~o de queijo (pow de KAY-zho, if you must) are odd, chewy little buns of manioc flour flavored with cheese, and mandioca frita com queijo are manioc root French fries, faintly dusted with Parmesan, sweeter but blander than potatoes.

The most famous Bahian dish is ximxim de galinha (shee-SHEE de ga-LEEN-ya), and Itana Bahia does a very savory version in which you taste chicken, a hint of lemon and dried shrimp and an indefinable richness from peanuts and dende^ oil. Like all entrees, it comes with a truncated cone of perfectly cooked rice, a mass of vatapa and soup or salad.

Moqueca de camara~o (mo-KEK-a de cama-ROW) is more or less shrimp Creole enriched with coconut milk and dende^ oil. A fish moqueca is also available.

The epitome of Bahianitude is prato dos deuses (PRAH-to dos DAY-oo-zes), a soothing, surprisingly filling platter of vatapa, frigideira (a rich crab stew) and caruru, an okra and dried shrimp dish. The menu rightly suggests it's more than enough for two.

There are also some dishes you might find in any Latin American restaurant. A very good milanesa--pretty much chicken fried steak with particularly dark, crunchy breading. Roast pork loin (porco assado), rather dry compared to Cuban roast pork but with an interesting ham and carrot filling. A warm, plush chicken souffle.

Dessert has the fewest surprises. There's guava paste with cheese (here a grainy cheese like ricotta salata), and you can get fruit with cream or ice cream. The flan (quindim de Iaia, keen-DEE de ya-YA) is an unusual version, a small medallion of custard with a heavy hit of coconut in it. The best of them is tropical mousse (pronounced tropical mousse), a luscious, tangy passion fruit mousse.

Bahia Itana pours Brazilian coffee, of course, and, more surprisingly, Brazilian Chardonnay and Merlot. At the end of the meal they give you a ribbon to knot around your wrist three times, making a wish with every knot. I wished for more of that tropical mousse.

BE THERE

Itana Bahia, 8711 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood. (310) 657-6306. Noon-11 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, noon-9:30 p.m. Sunday; closed Monday. Beer and wine. Street parking. Takeout. All major cards. Dinner for two, food only, $31-$51.

What to Get: casquinha de siri, bolinho de bacalhau, ximxim de galinha, moqueca de camara~o, prato dos deuses, tropical mousse.

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