Two decades ago, Little Brazil was one of the major tourist attractions in the Times Square area. One block of 46th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues contained seven or so restaurants, as well as groceries, liquors, haberdashery, medical offices, and a second-floor store displaying colorful and sometimes faded swimwear—which seemed to be preparing people for the tropical vacations. But even before the outbreak of the epidemic, the neighborhood was in decline and only three restaurants remained: Emporium Brasil, Via Brasil and Ipanema. Founded in 1979 and named after the famous Rio beach, Ipanema closed soon after the outbreak of COVID, only to come back to life a few weeks earlier.
Now located near the Empire State Building amidst a flock of new hotels – 10 blocks south of Little Brazil – the restaurant is still run by founder Alfredo Pedro’s sons, Carlos and Victor. The menu is condensed, the prices are higher, the buildings are more attractive. Near the front of the restaurant, the bar is highly decorated: fern fronds hang like Spanish moss from a palm tree made of a painted lathe, and bright scattered lights dazzle drinkers as bartenders go through their motions in the shade. We sat savoring the scenery while sipping caipirinhas ($18).
As a starter snack we ordered bacalhau and no bras ($20). This dish is usually a simple Portuguese casserole of scrambled eggs, potatoes, and cod, but here it’s been made into a delicate round mousse with crunchy potato strands on top. It was delicious, but it made us crave the most authentic. Sadly, classic Brazilian snacks like pao de queijo (bouncy cheese balls), coxinha de frango (chicken croquettes), and pastis (empanadas) on the previous menu are now gone, although they are sold during the day at Bica, the restaurant next door without Seating. Sandwiches, a Brazilian bar staple, are also absent from the restaurant’s menu. The new Ipanema is not the place that wants you to have a drink and a sandwich at the bar.
We quickly moved to a table in the casual dining room, set with tulip lamps between banks of white hanging ropes, both of which matched what I couldn’t say. Through an arched corridor, the more formal dining room with its white tablecloths and bookshelves looked like a library. First, we explored the appetizers, divided into hot and cold, which turned out to be as visually appealing as cod mousse, by chefs Giancarlo Junyent and Andre Pavlik.
A small bowl simply called the Clam ($17) had a delicious slice of garlic toast flailing on its wide rim, and a handful of Manila oysters scented with shallots and herbs in a broth full of salty flavour. Other hot appetizers include steamed mussels with white wine and tomatoes, and belly meat with celery and pickled onions. For vegetarians, there are garnishes of mushrooms, polenta and boiled eggs.
Among the cold appetizers, the salad called “beet” featured ricotta cheese and dill. It was good, but didn’t taste distinctly Brazilian or Portuguese, despite the port wine vinegar dressing. Other appetizers included ceviche in a marinade leche de tigre with purple sweet potatoes, and chicken mousseline; Note that the menu should resort to Spanish and French, rather than Portuguese, to describe what it offers. The dishes in this section of the menu were pretty good, but if you’re looking for familiar Brazilian flavours, you’re pretty much out of luck.
However, when it was time for appetizers, we looked for more traditional Brazilian recipes. Feijoada ($32), the national dish, was really in the money, a series of dishes featuring a pot of black beans simmered with pork parts (although we didn’t spot any pig’s ear or tail), including particularly tasty sausage. . Other bowls contain rice dotted with chives with perfect moisture, a roasted cassava called farofa for sprinkling on top, and a bowl of shredded, barely-cooked cabbage, as usual, with mandarin slices on top. All this offers green, ham, savory, and sweet bites.
There is really only one dish on the menu that reflects Afro-Brazilian cooking, which is the highlight of Brazilian cuisine for me. Muqueca ($48) is a fragrant seafood stew from Brazil’s colonial history that consists of ocean creatures in a thick broth garnished with palm oil and coconut milk, two tropical products that first originated in West Africa and impart a beautiful orange color and parasitic flavour. Processed with equal amounts of halibut, mussels, oysters, shrimp, and squid, the Ipanema version looks great, but the flavor proves pallid. This version lacks the oily sharpness of the best examples I’ve tasted over the years.
In some ways, the best part of our meal was the desserts from pastry chef Alejandro Nicolon. We ordered two. Best of all was the Salam Chocolate Slice ($14) with a zigzag caramel sauce over the cherry Guarani sorbet next door. Sour, sweet and chocolate, it was the richness of the chocolate and the contrasting acidity of the berries that lingered on the tongue, and brought our whole meal together.
Having dined at the original location once in years, I missed the sparkling vibe, casual feel, and fries of the original joint. But does Ipanema represent the future of Brazilian cuisine in New York City? Whether it is or not, I will still miss Little Brazil and its more sober culinary traditions.
Ipanema is located at 3 West 36th Street, between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, Herald Square