Sunday, September 26, 2010

Passion in the Air

In July, Chris and I went to Brazil together for the first time. My job entails a lot of international travel, and Brazil is a country I go to quite often. But this was the first time Chris was joining me, and I was looking forward to the vacation time in Rio that we had carved out.

There was a problem, though. In the best of all possible worlds, I have a direct flight from Dulles to Sao Paulo, an overnight flight lasting 10 hours. This allows me to have dinner, wash down my Ambien with the last sip of my red wine (I know you are not supposed to mix alcohol and sleeping pills, but it really takes a lot to put me down), go the bathroom, and then get a solid six hours sleep before the harsh lights blink on again and breakfast is served.

This time, because we were flying into Rio rather than Sao Paulo, we had to catch a connecting flight in Miami. Therein lay the problem. The flying time from Miami to Rio was only 8 hours. This meant that, by the time dinner was done, only 4 hours of sleeping time remained. Which meant, in turn, that we would arrive grumpy and disoriented in Rio, and our first day there would be shot. I worry a lot about these sorts of things.

So I developed a plan. Our departure time from Miami was 11:15 pm. Since we would be hungry for dinner way before then, it would make more sense to eat at the airport, and then skip the airplane meal – which would be awful anyway – and instead grab those crucial extra hours of sleep.

At first, all seemed to go well. Our terminal in MIA sported a real restaurant in addition to the food court options, and we had ample time to enjoy a solid meal. A couple of hours later, we went through the usual hassle of boarding the plane – the shuffling line to enter the aircraft, the congestion in the aisles as people search for a place to stow their overhead luggage, the bright nervousness with which people take their seats…Finally we were settled in our two-seat row, me in the window seat and Chris on the aisle. In my plan, we would have a drink and then, having already eaten dinner, we would don our face masks, insert our earplugs, and sink into oblivion until morning.

That is when the trouble began. Chris was earnestly studying the menu that the flight attendant had handed out. I think I’ll have the pasta, she announced.

But…didn’t we already have dinner? Yes, she said, but I am hungry again. I took a deep breath as my heart contracted. Roll with it, I commanded myself. For the next 55 minutes, I gave Chris bright smiles as my insides tensed into a mass of coiled springs. Bright smiles because I did not want to quash her unjaded delight at eating in the air. Bright smiles because I love the way she is so in the moment. But I kept looking anxiously her way, wondering how long this was going to take. As a byproduct of these glances, I noticed that the food actually did not look that bad. So how’s the pasta? Mmm…good! The tubes of ziti looked firm liked they were cooked al dente. The flecks of tomato sauce delicately enhanced rather than smothered the ziti…pasta with sauce, not the other way round. Looking at it I could almost taste the perfect ratio of white wine to olive oil, of garlic to salt. Want a bite, she asked? Oh no. I have already had dinner. I am satisfied.

From there, Chris moved on to the dessert. It looked yellowish and unknowable in its plastic container. Watching every move now, I followed her fork as it plunged into the nameless mass, scooped up a mouthful and made its way orad. Oh-my-god, she said. You must taste this. I was starting to get exasperated. This was airplane food, after all! No thank you. I really am quite satisfied. But it’s your favorite: passion fruit cheesecake! No thank you. There will be plenty of that, and much better, once we get to Brazil. Oooh, this is so amazing. The essence…….her voice trailed off at a loss for words beyond “the essence”. She repeated it, shaking her head in disbelief. I clenched the armrests.

After what seemed like a very long time, dinner was finally over and the carts were trundled down the aisles to collect the empty trays. Now I could get on with my routine. I swallowed my pill, and made my way to the bathroom. Waiting my turn, I found myself wedged between the bathroom wall and a parked food cart, still laden with the dinner dishes. There on the top shelf sat an uneaten serving of dessert. I stared at it, and it stared back. It’s your favorite….Chris’ words reverberated ….the essence….passion fruit, your favorite…Resolve gave way with a thud. I stuck my finger in, and sent it towards my mouth. Oh-my-god. It really was the essence….the essence of passion fruit, given flight in the most aerated cheesecake I have ever tasted. Almost a mousse, it nevertheless retained its cakey identity, then exploded in full fruitiness in your mouth. How was this possible?

In Rio, we searched to duplicate this delight, but without success. There were passionfruit cheesecakes everywhere you looked, but none like that one. Not in the Ipanema hippy market,

Ipanema Hippy Market

not in the neighborhood churrascaria, not even, once Chris had flown home and I had gone on to Sao Paulo, in the Pousada Dona Zilah where I had first discovered it. Tam Airlines takes the cake award, for the best passion in the air.

Update: Later I was to find out that Tam's international menus are devised by the highly acclaimed Brazilian chef, Helena Rizzo. Rizzo is responsible for the São Paulo restaurant and city hot spot, Mani, at the top of chef Paulo Barroso de Barros' Top 10 list of restaurants in the city.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Grill From Ipanema

Dishes To Die For: Brazilian paella; hearts of palm salad

For a Brazilian restaurant, The Grill From Ipanema (TGFI) does a lousy job with meat. A restaurant review I once read made a point of this (“leave the meat to the churrascarias”, it said), steering diners instead toward the feijoada. But the feijoada at TGFI lacks the pomp and ceremony with which this sumptuous stew is served in Brazil, with its parade of side dishes and, in some establishments, a shot of sweetened cachaca. Cachaca is rum made from the juice of the first press of unrefined sugar cane and is the stuff of Brazil’s national cocktail, the caipirinha. Done right, caipirinhas will send you straight to heaven, no questions asked. At TGFI, however, they are undrinkable.
Still, there is one reason to go, and then keep returning, to TGFI: the Brazilian paella. Green with cilantro and served in a clay pot, this is a kicky seafood paella that works its magic over and over again, allowing me forgive the restaurant its other sins. Easily serving two, it is also a bargain at $26.95.

For this review, I decide to return to TGFI to confirm that my entrenched beliefs still held true. Sure enough, the caipirinha was just awful. We pondered what could have gone wrong with this normally sublime drink, and came up with the hypothesis that it was made with low quality cachaca. If that was the case, I would be willing to pay more for a premium spirit. No dice. The restaurant only carries the Pitu brand, which our Brazilian waitress informed us was one of the few brands commercialized for export to the U.S. She agreed that this was a regrettable state of affairs, and even seemed to wrinkle her nose at the pitiful Pitu.

Next, we decided to give the meat one last try, and ordered an appetizer of beef churrasquinos (skewers), along with another favorite of mine, the hearts of palm salad. No surprises here either. The beef was tough and not particularly tasty, even the accompanying vinaigrette failing to perk it up. I was glad we had only ordered it as an appetizer. The salad, on the other hand, was as bountiful as usual, with thick hearts of palm, generous wedges of avocado, and segments of orange arranged on a bed of watercress and onions. But there is a pitfall to be avoided here too: the creamy dressing which is usually served with this salad ruins the dish, and it is best to ask for the oil and vinegar. If you absolutely must try the house dressing, ask for it on the side and decide for yourself. Even Chris, usually a fan of all things creamy, agrees with me on this one.

Finally, the piece de la resistance arrived: the Brazilian paella. This dish provides one of those moments where the presentation heralds something special, and then lives up to the expectation. The plates arrive prepped with small mounds of shredded parsley and carrots along their rims. Then comes the paella in its clay pot, with its mussels,clams,shrimp and chunks of fish nestled in beautifully spiced rice. A wedge of lemon is provided for a fresh squeeze of tartness. Silence fell as we dug in our forks. Reverence rather than commentary was called for.

To end this feast, we ordered the mousse de maracuja (passion fruit mousse), a favorite Brazilian dessert. This was truly to die for, and as good as I have had anywhere. We threw off any attempt at restraint and ordered a second.

Other reasons to go to The Grill from Ipanema:
TGFI has a nice sidewalk patio, and in the evening you score a crisp white table cloth, which is curiously absent at lunch time.
The service is excellent and personable.
The patio is across the road from Napoleon Bistro and a few doors down from the Metro K on Columbia and Belmont. Between the trendy folk at the Bistro and the denizens of Adams Morgan’s streets going to the corner store for supplies, people watching is at its diverse DC best.

Follow up on cacacha available in the District: my friend Matt referred me to this 2007 Washington Post article, which mentions several brands of cachaca being prepared for the U.S. market. I stopped in at Schneider’s of Capitol Hill to see if they carried any. They did: in addition to Pitu and the similar-quality Pirassununga 51, the mid-range Leblon and the premium Cabana were available. Still, Schneider’s seemed doubtful that many restaurants would stock the more pricey brands. I see another post in the making…

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Thursday, September 9, 2010

L'Enfant Cafe-Bar

Dish To Die For: frangelico and nutella crepes

Bittersweet Crepes

Chris and I were sitting on the patio at L’Enfant enjoying our salads one late summer evening, when Chris noticed that her baby greens were still clinging to their clump of earth. The waiter’s eyes almost popped out when he saw it, and he hurried the plate back to the kitchen. When he returned with a replacement salad, he announced that dessert would be on the house. This was fine with us, because, although the food at L’Enfant is always pleasing and fresh, the dishes to die for here are the sweet crepes. Chris did not hesitate to order her favorite, crepes au grand marnier, and I followed suit with mine: frangelico and nutella.

As the hazelnut-chocolate-wrapped-in-liquid-gold flavor made its way down my throat, the mishap with the salad faded from my mind, and I was taken back to the last time Chris and I had had crepes at L’Enfant. Sunday, January 18, 2009, the Sunday of the Obama inauguration weekend. It had been a weekend of galas and parties, and that morning, people -- us included -- were still in celebration mode. L’Enfant was operating at full capacity, and I remember the gauzy winter light slanting into the bistro, bathing the happy revelers. We spent the better part of three hours sampling the crepes and downing grand mimosas, by the end of which we had racked up a bill of close to $100. But hey, it was a special occasion, and we enjoyed every moment of it.

Back in the present, Chris was making moaning noises as she helped herself to my frangelico and nutella crepes. “So, do you like them better than the grand marnier?” I asked.

“You’ll never get me to say that,” came the reply. This puzzled me for a moment…until I remembered something she had told me. Late January, 1982. It had been Chris’ last day in Paris, and she had gone to visit Les Invalides where she had seen a holocaust exhibit. Depressed, she decided to see how many grand marnier crepes she could eat before leaving the City of Light, hitting every corner crepe stand that she passed. By the time her head hit the toilet (her words), she had consumed 27 grand marnier crepes with extra grand marnier. If she now conceded that actually another crepe was better, all that would have been for nothing, her tribute to life at its best undermined. I understood then that Chris’ long term relationship with crepes au grand marnier could not be tampered with. And I feel the same way about my allegiance to frangelico and nutella. Now, if only Obama could recapture his glow, I could remember that inaugural moment in its full sweetness...

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