The Grill From Ipanema
“The Girl From Ipanema” will never lose its allure. The smooth and sultry bossa nova number, from the Stan Getz and Joao Gilberto album Getz/Gilberto, immortalized the dulcet tones of Gilberto’s Brazilian-born wife, Astrud, who wasn’t a professional vocalist and got to sing on the session only because her English was better than her husband’s. It was one of the biggest hits in the summer of 1964, a striking and sophisticated alternative to the rest of that season’s adult pop hits, such as Barbra Streisand’s wailing “People” and Roger Miller’s “Dang Me.”
Well, dang me, a fresh infusion of Brazilian culture is way overdue, whether in music — Latin Grammy nominee Maria Rita or the pop band Skank come to mind — or in food. The country’s culinary traditions are, like its music, strongly influenced by European and African cultures. That’s what makes the arrival of Sabor Brasil, a family-owned outlet for traditional Brazilian dishes — and potent cocktails like caipirinhas, served by a bartender under a thatched-roof awning — a revolutionary surprise in the heart of Johnson County, that mecca of corporate-spawned restaurants.
The month-old restaurant is owned by Brazilian-born Eliana Sedovic, her husband, John, and her daughter, Ellen DaCruz. Its downtown Overland Park location has been the kiss of death for a half-dozen restaurants (most recently Scavuzzo’s), but I think the place has a lot of potential — despite some early glitches.
My friend Carmen, the Guatemalan glam girl, was particularly eager to dine there. She hoped it would be like the Brazilian-style churrascarias from her home country. “A churrascaria is like a steakhouse,” she said. “But the patrons serve themselves salads and side dishes from a buffet, and the server brings out the meat dish.”
After she explained all that, I wished that Sabor Brasil was a churrascaria, too. But the style of dining in this bright-yellow room is strictly Americanized, even if the menu isn’t. Carmen was thrilled to open the menu and see fried yuca, the crunchy, Latin American version of a french fry made from the starchier cassava root. “This was something I grew up eating. They’re much better than french fries.”
And so they were, as thick as rope and golden brown, dusted with grated cheese and served with a foamy liquid vaguely described on the menu as a “carrot-based dipping sauce.” Sadly, one dip of the tasteless sauce was plenty for me; I ate the rest of the yuca naked. As much as I craved the cassava, though, I practically gagged on the “special calamari,” which was stone cold. It tasted as if it had been sitting in the kitchen since Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was elected president of Brazil in 2002.
I looked at the menu with a new wariness, but Carmen seemed enchanted by the place and was delighted to hear Astrud Gilberto’s airy voice wafting from the sound system. Even if the calamari was inedible, she said, she loved the music. We didn’t have the heart to complain about the sorry squid to our engaging waitress, the dark-haired Bonita, so we just moved on to the next course.
Carmen already knew what she wanted: the peixe Sabor Brasil, a nice hunk of sautéed tilapia served on a bed of surprisingly greasy vegetables. “Hmm,” Carmen sniffed, “there’s a lot of oil going on here.” After wavering over another “specialty of the house,” a mixed-grill number called carne na chapa, I let Bonita convince me to order the much more popular carne acebolada. Ah, but there’s always a price to pay for following the crowd, and the acebolada’s great charm was lost on me. The dish wasn’t terrible, but it bore only the slightest resemblance to the menu’s description, which promised “strips of pan-grilled steak topped with caramelized onions.” Instead, the hunk — not strips — of beef was disappointingly chewy and came perched on a nest of shredded cabbage and drenched in a starchy gravy with a heap of sautéed, not caramelized, onions.
The highlight of the meal was one of Eliana Sedovic’s desserts. Sedovic presents a constantly rotating array of cakes and mousses, and that night I was drawn to a slab of pastry that Bonita insisted was a “chocolate mousse cake.” It was fudgy and densely rich, but let’s call it what it was (in Portuguese or English): chocolate layer cake. Far better was Carmen’s moist baked flan topped with stewed prunes. “Prunes are very big in Latin America,” Carmen said. But we plucked them off before enjoying the flan.
My next visit was a more raucous affair, with Bob and our friend Marilyn, who brought along her adventurous teenaged grandkids Spencer and Brooke. Marilyn, who has traveled to Brazil several times, was slightly scandalized when we were seated at a table underneath a woven wall hanging that boasted a painting of a nude, busty native woman.
“It’s the actual girl from Ipanema,” Bob guessed as he nibbled on a wedge of fried yuca, refusing to be talked out of ordering the same carne acebolada that I had tasted on the previous visit. “But it sounds like something I would like,” he argued. It wasn’t, though, and instead he ate half of the grilled meats on my sizzling carne na chapa platter, which arrived heaped with beef, savory sausage and a beautifully seasoned chicken breast.
Bonita wasn’t working on all cylinders that night. We had to keep asking for little things — like plates, glasses and silverware. Neither was the bar, which ran out of fizzy Guarana soda long before the kids’ thirst for it did. But Marilyn, who can be terribly picky, liked her salad, dotted with tender hearts-of-palm slices. And her dinner was excellent: jumbo shrimp sautéed with garlic, sweet peppers and cilantro.
The beautiful Brooke, a surprisingly adventurous eater for a 17-year-old, also gave high marks to the frango a caipira, a mix of chicken, sausage and pork rinds sautéed with garlic and onions. Her cousin Spencer, noting that none of us had ordered porco, did the honors himself. Although he liked the flavor of the pork loin rubbed with rosemary, cumin, cayenne and garlic, he noted that the lombinno gaucho was “sort of dry.” Still, he ate every bite.
“The side dishes are excellent,” Marilyn said as she heaped spoonfuls of the sumptuous creamed rice and slow-cooked beans onto her plate. “I love everything.”
I did, too, that night. I’d nearly stuffed myself silly before Bonita brought out the evening’s dessert tray for us to peruse. There was no baked flan this time, but the pale-orange passion-fruit mousse, topped with a thick head of whipped cream, was sensational. And the kids loved the chocolate layer cake, which was even more fudgy and dense this time around.
As we were walking out the front door, we noted that the Tiki Hut-style bar was also dense — with middle-aged men. Coming up from the rear, Marilyn and I watched, amazed, as their heads turned at the sight of fresh-faced Brooke. I imagined them, just like in the song, all saying, Aaah.