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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