1819 Park St., Hartford, (860) 233-7488
Hartford restaurant-goers have grown accustomed to the arrival and departure of Brazilian restaurants. Eateries have shown up and vanished, on Franklin Avenue, on Pratt Street and on Farmington Avenue. The comings are always greeted with excitement. The goings are often a disappointment, but rarely a surprise, given the track record. But that pattern doesn't hold true on Park Street, in Parkville, where several Brazilian restaurants and bakeries seem to have established themselves. And a new place, the Ipanema Cafe, opened there recently. (In fact, the Ipanema Cafe is the work of Nelson Diorio, who ran Chale Ipanema, that well-loved Brazilian spot in Hartford's South End that shut down years ago.)
The Ipanema Cafe isn't, strictly speaking, just a Brazilian restaurant; it also serves Portuguese food. There are already a number of other Portuguese restaurants in the area — some of Hartford's best are probably within walking distance of the Ipanema Cafe, which is on the spot where Patio Da Rainha once was. I've always loved the distinctive sun-baked earthy red color of that building. I stopped at the Ipanema Cafe recently for lunch. And, while there are Brazilian and Portuguese flags side-by-side on the wall inside, I'd say that the flavor of the place is a little more Brazilian than Portuguese. Foot-moving samba played on the stereo, occasionally downshifting into mellower bossa nova.
The space inside appears to be ready to host some festive dancing. The entrance brings you into a small dining room, with a bar at the back with a small window into the kitchen. In an adjoining room there's a stage and a dance floor. Signs on the wall announce DJ nights featuring an eclectic mix of everything from salsa to samba, merengue and more.
But I was there to eat on a quiet mid-week afternoon. The menu includes salt cod (bacalao), fried shrimp, sausage, seafood, steaks, sandwiches and more.
I started out with a bowl of potato and kale soup (caldo verde). I always find this combination so counterintuitive, and so I'm generally surprised when it all seems to work together. Some might find the cloudy broth off-putting, but it's a little like the Portuguese equivalent of miso soup, only with potatoes filling in for fermented soybean paste, and wisps of kale replacing seaweed. One slice of vinegary sausage added bite to things. It's salty and simple.
The special board listed feijoada ($12), a traditional Brazilian stew with black beans and sausage. So that was what I went for. Brazil has a lot in common with the U.S. Both countries were involved in the transatlantic slave trade, and the culture and legacy of enslaved Africans hugely influenced the national identity, food, music, style, and politics of both as well. Feijoada is a stew that was often associated with the poor or working class, made with affordable cuts and scraps of meat. It has since become known as the Brazilian national dish. One might see a connection with the American hamburger, a creation with humble origins that has become symbolic of this country's cooking.
Feijoada is typically not very spicy, but it is flavored with salted meats. This is filling food, served at the Ipanema Cafe with a side of slightly yellow rice, thinly sliced pieces of collard greens — like they'd been run through a paper shredder — some pieces of fresh-cut oranges and a tasty and herb-heavy tomato that's sort of like a cross between salsa and chimichurri.
The Ipanema Cafe is a mellow and slightly dim place. It's nice to have a calm spot to sit down and eat Brazilian food on Park Street and to order off a menu, since most of the other places serve buffet style and Brazilian BBQ, which is very affordable and satisfying. Judging from my visit, the patrons at the moment are mostly Brazilian, but the staff is eager to help newcomers make sense of the menu. If Park Street is the only part of Hartford that can sustain Brazilian restaurants, then the Ipanema Cafe is just one more reason to eat in Parkville.