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A touch of Rio, right next door

April 05, 2006|Linda Burum | Special to The Times

AT the newish Tropicalia Brazilian Grill on Hillhurst in Los Feliz, the salada Brasileira, a plate of baby lettuces showered with huge roasted cashews, palm-heart slivers, avocado and bits of ripe plantain and offered with grilled chicken, beef or shrimp, belongs more to the California-style chicken Caesar genre than to classic Brazilian cooking. That's by design. This vibrant plate is as colorful as Rio's carnival, but it's not trying to be authentically Brazilian.

Along with almost every other item on the menu at Tropicalia (pronounced tropi-cai-yuh), the salad was dreamed up by Italian-born chef Santino Coccia and his partner Brazilian-born John Borghetti. Borghetti is owner of the popular Farfalla Trattoria up the street, and the two men are partners in Tropicalia and the adjacent Vinoteca Farfalla, a wine bar that shares Tropicalia's kitchen. They've drawn on Brazil's exotic ingredient list of perfumey malagueta peppers, rich tropical nuts and other equatorial produce, occasionally integrating an Italian or Mexican ingredient. Their jazzy yet inexpensive presentations infuse Brazil's complexly spiced, gustily flavored fare with contemporary style.

Tropicalia's small dining room, austere in a designerly sort of way, is all angled walls of sage and butter yellow with a semi-open kitchen and simple wooden furniture. But part of the slightly haphazard charm of the place comes from the way cases of wine are piled in corners and snake conga-line style around the edge of the room. Most of these bottles will be consumed at Vinoteca Farfalla.

Although Tropicalia offers good daily-special wines for $3.50 a glass along with several other choices under $5, customers may walk through a passageway that connects the restaurants and order from Vinoteca's selection of about 40 wines. Tropicalia's list of bottled Brazilian beers complements its food, but beer hounds may also choose from Vinoteca's stellar draft beer selection.

The entire menu is available from 11 a.m. until midnight, so it's a great place to drop in for a wine-friendly snack such as the fried calamari or a grilled beef sandwich or a meal. Appetizers here are sufficient for a light meal. One, a clever rendition of empanadas, uses egg roll wrappers to form crisp, airy crusts that are amply filled with beef or chicken deeply scented with a citrus marinade. Ceviche Brazileiro, a refreshing cilantro and lime-marinated mix of shrimp and white fish, is served with malagueta sauce, a chimichurri-like herb-garlic salsa spiked with Brazil's indigenous malagueta peppers.

Tropicalia's paiadina Brasileira, or quesadillas, are overstuffed versions of their Mexican cousins. Flour tortillas, crammed with chunks of seafood or chicken or Pasilla chiles and cheese, are grilled until the cheese is melty and supple, then drizzled with rich crema, Latin-style sour cream, and placed beside a hillock of mashed avocado and diced tomato in a Euro-style vinaigrette.

Among the entrees, moqueca de peixe is one of the few traditional items on the menu. This mild version of the creamy coconut milk-based seafood stew, lightly sparked with malagueta pepper and a splash of rich palm oil, is the signature dish of northern Brazil, where the intricately flavored cuisine bears the imprint of West African cooking. With moqueca comes a pao de queijo, a slightly chewy popover liberally flavored with cheese.

Grilled chicken, one of those menu items offered to appease unadventurous appetites, is a splendidly baroque presentation at Tropicalia. The boned half bird, infused with garlic and citrus, comes plated with two sauces and a festival of flavor-packed sides including sauteed ripe plantains and a fluffy mound of the toasted cassava flour known as farofa. The dish escapes inducing sensory overload only because its components are so well coordinated.

The braised short ribs or braised pork, both served over velvety polenta rectangles, can be wonderful or problematic. On some visits, they have been freshly made and meltingly tender; on other occasions they've been reheated. But the stylishly assembled hot sandwiches are terrific. Fillings, which include braised beef and pork and grilled marinated chicken or steak, are lavishly layered into slabs of crisp-crusted French-style bread with a coordinating condiment: grilled chicken with avocado sauce, beef with garlic sauce. The irresistible skinny fries that come alongside are freckled with cayenne-scented Creole seasoning.

The $8 desserts that Tropicalia customers may order from the Farfalla list are hit or miss (Tropicalia's own menu doesn't include desserts). The restaurant's name was taken from a Brazilian music trend of the late '60s that broke with tradition to incorporate the outside influences of blues, jazz and rock in the same way this kitchen has assimilated Mexican, French and Italian elements. For Borghetti and Coccia, the idea seemed a natural match for a neighborhood that they've come to understand well.

*

Tropicalia

Location: 1966 Hillhurst Ave., Los Angeles, (323) 644-1798.

Price: Appetizers, $1.75 to $10; entrees and sandwiches, $8.50 to $12.

Best dishes: Pastes (empanadas), salada Brasileira, chicken Tropicalia, Brazipork sandwich.

Details: Open daily from 11 a.m. to midnight. Lot or street parking. All major cards. Wine and beer.

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