Two decades ago, Little Brazil was one of the top tourist attractions in the Times Square area. A single block of 46th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues was home to about seven restaurants, along with grocery and liquor stores, haberdashery shops, doctor’s offices, and a second-floor department store displaying brightly colored and sometimes skimpy bathing suits — which had people ready to wave seemed to be going on a tropical vacation. But even before the pandemic hit, the neighborhood was in decline and only three restaurants remained: Emporium Brasil, Via Brasil, and Ipanema. Founded in 1979, Ipanema is named after a famous beach in Rio. Shortly after the emergence of COVID, Ipanema was shut down only to come back to life a few weeks ago.
The restaurant is now located near the Empire State Building in the midst of a bevy of new hotels – 10 blocks south of Little Brazil – and is still run by founder Alfredo Pedro’s sons, Carlos and Victor. The menu has been condensed, the prices are higher, the premises are more glamorous. Near the front of the restaurant, the bar is beautifully ornate: fern fronds dangle like Spanish moss from a lacquered-wood palm tree, and scattered bright lights dazzle drinkers as bartenders move about in the shade. We sat and enjoyed the scene while sipping caipirinhas ($18).
For starters, we ordered Bacalhau, no bra ($20). Usually this dish is a simple Portuguese casserole of scrambled eggs, potatoes and cod, but here it has been transformed into a tender round mousse with crispy potato threads. It was tasty, but we were craving the heartier original. Unfortunately, the classic Brazilian bar snacks like pao de queijo (bouncy cheese balls), coxinha de frango (chicken croquettes), and pasteis (empanadas) that featured on the earlier menu are now gone, though sold at Bica, the restaurant, during the day will be seatless takeaway next door. Sandwiches, which are staples of Brazilian taverns, are also absent from the restaurant’s menu. The new Ipanema isn’t the kind of place where you want to have a drink and a sandwich at the bar.
We were soon seated at a table in the casual dining room, which was furnished with tulip lights suspended from white rope between benches, both matching what I couldn’t tell. Through an archway, a more formal dining room with white tablecloths and bookshelves appeared almost like a library. First, via chefs Giancarlo Junyent and Andre Pavlik, we explored the starters, divided into hot and cold, which turned out to be just as visually appealing as our cod mousse.
A small bowl called simply “Clams” ($17) carried a delicious slice of garlic toast, swaying on its wide rim and pushing its way to some leek-and-herb-scented manila clams in a broth full of salty-flavored jam. Other warm starters include mussels steamed with white wine and tomatoes, and pork belly with celeriac and pickled onions. For vegetarians there is a starter with mushrooms, polenta and a poached egg.
Among the cold appetizers was the salad called “Beets” with ricotta and dill; it was good but didn’t taste typically Brazilian or Portuguese despite its port wine vinaigrette. Other appetizers included a ceviche in a leche de tigre marinade with purple sweet potatoes and a chicken mousseline; Note that the menu has to resort to Spanish and French, not Portuguese, to describe its offerings. The dishes in this section of the menu were good, but if you were looking for familiar Brazilian flavors, you’re out of luck.
However, when it came time for appetizers, we sought out more orthodox Brazilian recipes. Considered the national dish, feijoada ($32) hit the spot, a series of dishes featuring a pot of black beans simmering with chunks of pork (though we didn’t spot any pork ears or tails), including a particularly tasty sausage. Other vessels contained rice of perfect moisture sprinkled with chives, the roasted cassava flour called farofa for sprinkling, and a bowl of chopped and barely cooked cabbage, as is customary, with chunks of tangerine on top. These all offer bites, which in turn are green, porky, salty, and sweet.
There is really only one dish on the menu that reflects Afro-Brazilian cuisine, which for me is the highlight of Brazilian cuisine. Muqueca ($48) is a seafood stew reminiscent of Brazil’s colonial history and consists of sea creatures in a thick broth made with dende (palm oil) and coconut milk, two tropical products, with the former coming from West Africa and imparting a lovely orange color and clayey flavor . Equipped with equal amounts of halibut, clams, clams, shrimp and squid, Ipanema’s version looks great, but the flavor proves pale. This version lacks the oily pungency that characterizes the finest examples I’ve tasted over the years.
In a way, the best part of our meal was the desserts made by master pastry chef Alejandro Nicolon. We ordered two. Best of all was a slice of chocolate salam ($14) with a squiggly caramel sauce over a bordering guarani cherry sorbet. Sour, sweet and chocolaty, 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 eaten at the original venue years ago, I missed the boisterous ambience, informality and fried potatoes of the original eatery. But does Ipanema represent the future of Brazilian cuisine in NYC? Whether or not I will still miss Little Brazil and its more solid culinary traditions.
Ipanema is located at 3 West 36th Street, between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, Herald Square