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Southern Exposure

[whitespace] Brazil Blame It on Rio: 'Nova Cozinha Brasileira' adds a Californian distinction to Brazil's seafood- and sausage-heavy diet.


South American colonists in Hayes Valley?

By Michael Stabile

A neighborhood in transition is fertile ground for experimentation. The rapidly gentrifying Hayes Valley, with its constructive pastiche of freeway offramp, newly erected picket-fence low-income housing, lustrous view of the refurbished City Hall dome and proximity to the high-culture temples of opera and symphony, has proved not only experimental in its consumerist melange of magick shoppes, upscale boutiques and trip-hopping wine bars, but almost haphazard in its formation of a definitive flavor.

Whereas North Beach has remained an Italian stronghold, the Upper Fillmore a virtual farm of Northern Californian variants and the Castro a pan-pan-pan-fusion of faux-haute cheap eats, Hayes Valley remains epicurially undefined. Powell's Place offers American Southern, Absinthe rows the Seine, Suppenkuche putsches German Bavaria and Mad Magda's Tea Room is infused with tastes of tsarist Russia. In the space of three gentrified blocks, Hayes has rapidly become a culinary Epcot Center to accompany the fantasy called Friscoland.

But this brimming global stew may be cooling to a gazpacho with the recent opening of two South American-influenced restaurants: Evita Cafe and Terra Brazilis, which serve Argentine and Brazilian cuisine, respectively. Both boast of being the only profferers of their respective native foods in San Francisco, and a cursory glance at the local phone book does little to dispute these claims. Although America's so-called food city offers an array of North American, Asian, European and African food, South America is sorely underrepresented. Other than Chilean wine and an occasional mole, our palates are rarely tempted south of the equator.

Evita Cafe attempted to remedy this situation when it opened nearly a year ago on the corner of Oak and Gough. I initially overlooked the blue-and-gold neoned diva as a cheap promotional stunt riding on the rather fey obsessions of Madonna and musicals. In doing so, I underestimated the visceral attachment of the Argentine people to their former first lady. Evita Cafe is strewn with photos of Santa Evita--not film stills or Vogue covers, but the real thing.

The food is neither pretentious nor simplistic, but consists of well-prepared staples of Argentine cuisine. Appetizers show the heavy Spanish influence with gazpacho and hot garlic soups, cold meat and olive plates, and meat-stuffed empanadas. The Picada that appeared on the menu as Argentine antipasti of sorts was in fact a multiplate affair of cubed meat (salami, ham), cubed cheese (cheddar, bleu) and olives (California black and pimento stuffed green). Oh, and lots of toothpicks. Although I was mildly distressed by the lack of finesse (it reminded me of college-dorm-function fare), the homey service and sweet older waitress tempered my apprehension. So I sipped my Caipirinha (a heavily limed tequilish concoction with historical roots in Brazil) and relaxed.

The empanadas, crispy pastry stuffed with cheese or meat and egg, were equally quaint but a savory step up from the rather staid picada. Was someone's grandmother cooking for us in the back? The entrees increased the home-style/dining-out dichotomy even further. I found the Pollo Marsala an odd addition to an Argentine menu, since Chicken Marsala has become such a Sicilian-American standard, but regardless of origins the woody, rustic and slightly sweet sauce draped the tender meat like a simple peasant skirt cut on the bias.

Other entrees, such as the Pastel de Choclo "Lucia," a creamy corn pie with chunks of chicken and beef, were heavy, delicious and caloric. In America, we generally ascribe such qualities to lower-grade cuisine (McDonald's, cheese steaks, fried chicken), but Evita elevates it to home-cooked perfection.

Terra Brazilis attempts a more sophisticated menu than Evita, but with mixed results and higher prices. When it is good, however, Terra Brazilis erases boundaries and reaches heights that are limited in the more traditional Evita Cafe.

Working with a Portuguese rather than Spanish base, "Nova Cozinha Brasileira" adds a Californian distinction to Brazil's seafood- and sausage-heavy diet. Small plates include a Beet Carpaccio salad with Humboldt Fog Goat Cheese and a Blood Orange Vinaigrette ($6.25), Couscous Sao Paulo Style with Rock Shrimp and Swiss Chard ($7) and an especially tempting Mussel, Clam and Sausage Curry with Coconut Sauce ($8), which employed a heat-subtle curry to infuse the shellfish and sausage with a rounder, unified base. The sauce was bread-mopping good.

The Salt Cod and Potato Croquettes ($6.75) were very upscale fish sticks, but served with basil oil and orange essence. Fortunately, I happen to love fish sticks, even Gorton's, so scrumped the dish up like a high-end treat (orange essence, by the way, is about 10 times better on fish than tartar sauce is).

Entrees include a creative pan-roasted preparation of Escolar (butterfish) with a Basil Oil Tapenade and Fingerling Potatoes ($16.50), which made me decide that this was the perfect fish--perhaps the next Chilean sea bass--to make it popular stateside. Firm like salmon, but flakier and mild like sole, escolar lends itself well to the casual sauces and flavors of Brazilian cuisine.

Compared with Central and North American Latino cuisines, this one relies less on chiles, cilantro and onions. Sharper flavors are softened, fire is dampened by sugar and cream. One disappointment was the Pork Chop Stuffed with Drunken Prunes. The accompanying collard greens were supple and juicy, but the meat was overcooked. Perhaps the downfall of the chop was its over nova-ness. Taking the fat out of fatty foods can render them irredeemable on the palate, sort of like dating the plain friend of someone really cute. With some work, I imagine Terra Brazilis may overcome its growing pains, but until then one's best bet is to hit the grownup, relaxed and fatty atmosphere of Evita Cafe.

Evita Cafe, 199 Gough (415/552-7132)
Terra Brazilis, 602 Hayes (415/241-1900)

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From the March 15, 1999 issue of the Metropolitan.

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