Carnaval, bossa nova, caipirinhas and topless beaches may be the only facets of Brazilian culture most of us are familiar with -- vital contributions all. But Brazil's cuisine is one of the most appealing in the world. Portuguese colonists and the slaves they brought from West Africa formed a unique cuisine featuring tropical fruits from the Amazon and seafood from a coastline as long as Gisele Bundchen's legs. Native Indians taught the newcomers how to use indigenous spices to good effect. And swells of immigrants from Germany, Japan, Italy and the Arabian Peninsula brought ingredients, cooking methods and dishes from their homelands. At Yemanja Brasil, chef Mark Valat and owner Lemya Sidki preserve the authenticity of Brazil's cuisine as much as possible given the limited availability of the extraordinary fishes, fruits, spices and other raw materials native to South America.
Just as in West Africa, street food in Brazil is often deep-fried. The problem with most fried food is that it tastes like breaded blender meals. At Yemanja, frying does what it should: The technique adds crispness, flavor and heat to good ingredients. Acarajé, or black-eyed-pea fritters, are made by dropping golf-ball-size lumps of batter into a pot of dendê, a palm oil similar to the stuff that the nutrition police banned from movie-theater popcorn machines. The fritters are served with vatapá, a paste of coconut milk, red-pepper flakes, dried shrimp and ground peanuts and cashews. Bolinho de bacalhau, or yucca and salt-cod fritters, are served with tomato salsa, a flavor boost they don't really need. The fish -- Norwegian cod preserved in salt and reconstituted in water -- gives the fritters an airy texture a little lighter than that of a typical crab cake. Another fried appetizer is yucca fries with a curried dipping sauce. On a visit to Yemanja a few years ago, the fries were irresistible. This time, they were dry and mealy. A more satisfying choice is empanadas de bife, turnovers filled with finely ground beef. The meat is scented with cinnamon -- a spice used in the savory dishes of many world cuisines, such as Turkish and Indian -- and enveloped in a crackly pastry shell.
Don't come to Yemanja unless you're prepared to duke it out with a few red-hot chile peppers. Diners with wimpy taste buds should stick to the Olive Garden, where the Never-Ending Pasta Bowl has a chokehold on blandness. Feijoada, the Brazilian national dish, is aggressive enough to sandbag anyone whose palate hasn't been in training. This black-bean stew has roots in Brazil's slave quarters, where cooks salvaged the excommunicated parts of the pig -- ears, feet, snout, tongue and tail. At Yemanja, feijoada is made with pork ribs, Portuguese smoked sausages and carne seca, a salt-cured beef similar to jerky. Diners traditionally rev up the stew with a shot of oil from the pot of pimenta malagueta -- tiny hot peppers similar to Thai chiles. Feijoada is ladled into a handsome earthenware tureen and served with farofa, a sautéed meal ground from manioc (cassava), the root from which tapioca is derived. At Yemanja the farofa is studded with golden raisins. It looks like couscous but -- trust us on this -- tastes like sawdust when eaten a forkful at a time. We learned after the fact that it's a condiment meant to be sprinkled over other dishes. The farofa is paired with barely wilted collard greens that still have some tooth left to them.
We sampled one vegetarian entrée, pimentão recheado do Marcos. It consists of poblano peppers plumped with mozzarella and draped with caramelized-tomato salsa. (The cheese might make you think the dish has been Americanized, but recall that Italian immigrants have incorporated their products into Brazil's cuisine.) The stuffed green poblanos, mild chiles shaped like tapering bell peppers, slip naked into the fry basket like bathing beauties. The loose-limbed, svelte specimens that emerge from the oil are like chiles rellenos that have spent a couple weeks at an exclusive spa in Scottsdale.
One evening our waiter recommended moqueca bahiana, fish prepared in the style of Salvador da Bahia, a cosmopolitan coastal city that was Brazil's original capital. Red snapper, the fresh catch that day, had been sautéed in dendê, swathed in a robe of coconut milk, garlic, onions and red peppers and showered with chopped cilantro. Each bite was round and silky, without the mouth-coating flabbiness that makes most cream sauces seem oppressively rich. Another of those manly clay cauldrons arrived when we ordered caldeirada do mar, a seafood-and-rice soup with a lemony cilantro-scented broth that reminded us of Vietnamese pho. The vessel held enough salmon, snapper, calamari, mussels and baby shrimp to stock an aquarium.
As in many ethnic restaurants, Yemanja's dessert menu is listless and perfunctory. This neglect is surprising, though, because pastries, sorbets and macerated fruits are popular in Brazil. Yemanja offers only three. Pudim de coco is a slice of coconut Bundt cake blanketed with grainy caramel. The crumb was moist and fresh, but it had a peculiar mustiness. Pudim carioca is a chilled flan that illustrates why this dish does not attract the groupies who flock to crème brûlée and molten-chocolate cake. Our waiter described paveé da nena as similar to tiramisu. We foolishly ordered it anyway. The dish was a sodden, pulpy mess, like one of those ghastly pudding-cake recipes in a church fundraising cookbook. Still, we give the restaurant credit for trying, instead of purchasing some quadruple-chocolate obsession-suicide-exaggeration thing from a supplier. (Gotta have dessert? See "Side Dish" for a suggestion.)
Yemanja Brasil is in a corner building painted turquoise, lime green and dandelion yellow. The interior is clean, spare and welcoming. A few pagan-looking artifacts hang on a wall near the bar downstairs. Diners sit upstairs, where a fireplace, wood stove and hammocks warm up the space. We were disappointed not to find the jars of spiders, crabs and snakes marinating in booze that are sold as aphrodisiacs in Brazil. Especially prized are the poached genitalia of a well-endowed male fish -- why not put a bottle of those on display? After a few caipirinhas, the male of any species starts to look mighty good.
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