I can’t speak a word of Portuguese. I’ve picked up a little German, Spanish, French, and even some Russian over the years, but Portuguese completely eludes me, as if an entire segment of the world’s population is conspiring to bewilder me by singing a beautiful song with invented words.
However, I’ve never had any trouble understanding how to eat my way across borders, both national and linguistic. Therefore, a recent mission to explore a bit of fine dining at Carlos Brazilian International Cuisine didn’t daunt me too much. We had some friends in from out of town, and we love to show off some of the great places to eat while we’re showing off Roanoke, and so up the hill we went.
Perched on a bluff above Electric Road, Carlos has made the location of the former Steak & Ale its own, blending an elegant Old-World dining room with a panoramic view with a very New-World décor brimming with jungle creatures and verdant vines snaking over murals, wooden roofbeams and tropical objets d’art. Having been a tad late in calling for a reservation one Saturday, our party was relegated to a cozy back dining room, but I’ll confess that I found its atmosphere warmer and more intimate than the front room with the view.
We started out with the Palmito Gratinato, or hearts of palm broiled in a parmesan cream sauce. The fresh flavor of the palm hearts softened the heavy and rich sauce, and the two complemented each other well. Another hit at the table was the Mussels Parati, which came in a buttery white wine reduction with garlic and thyme. The shellfish were tender and flavorful, which was a pleasant surprise, in that they can often be a bit rubbery. Less enchanting was the baked brie appetizer, which was crusted with almonds and plated with a raspberry sauce; unfortunately, the flavor of the cheese was too mild to push through the sweet sauce.
The real surprise during the first course, however, came from the behavior of one of the diners. He had ordered one of the several special appetizers offered that night – a lobster tail cubed and deep fried, and served with drawn butter. No amount of begging, threats, or offering to share would induce him to give up a single rich and delicious bite. It was shameful. But I regret nothing.
In certain fine-dining situations, a salad can be a forgettable speed bump on the way to somewhere else, a time-killer while awaiting tastier things. But my wife and I bullied our entire table into trying Chef Carlos Amaral’s celebrated avocado dressing (a favorite of ours since the restaurant’s days in much smaller digs on Market Street), and our approving waitress left the table with four very, very clean salad plates. Creamy and garlicky and good, it adorned the mixed greens and shredded carrots like an emperor’s gown on a hardy peasant.
My wife enjoyed her Moqueca Mineira so much that she wanted to get me back for the lobster appetizer trick I pulled, but in the end I appealed to her professional integrity, since I was on the job and all. And she fell for it. [Evil laugh]. Tender clams, flaky white fish, and sweet juicy shrimp tossed in a spicy sauce with onions and pimentos and served over rice, it was an excellent example of how a few humble voices can be blended to make a symphony.
Brazilian cuisine is often noted for its use of a variety of tropical fruits, and following this principle led me to try the Frango Tropical, a sautéed chicken breast served with diced apple, pineapple, and papaya and served with deep-fried bananas over a bed of rice. I really enjoyed the way the sweet flavors of the fruit mixed with the fried-taste of the sautéed chicken, but I also like to mix a little spicy with a little sweet. Our equally professional and puckish waitress heard me mention this and brought out this evil potion that she called hot sauce in a tiny one-ounce metal carafe that I can only assume was made out of titanium to keep it from setting the table on fire. Sort of like a chutney, finely diced hot peppers in a light oil, it was hot enough for a tiny spoonful to light up my entire meal, necessitating an extra round of a really excellent Brazilian pilsner called Palma Louca. My wife, of course, ate the rest of the demon sauce without batting an eye.
An array of wonderful desserts and after-dinner drinks rounded out the night, and after a final gaze at the view, we reluctantly went back down the hill to the U.S. My friend Juliana is from Brazil (she’s not from Ipanema, though I understand she does occasionally go walking), and when I told her the next day that I’d been to an upscale Brazilian restaurant, she asked me how I liked the feijoado. When I told her that I hadn’t tried it (feijoado is a meaty stew made with vegetables, black beans and rice and is often thought of as a sort of national dish), she used a few words that I luckily didn’t understand and told me that I needed to go back and have some. And who am I to argue?