By David Minsky
By Jen Mangham
By Bill Wisser
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"It is Brazil's time," an exuberant President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva exclaimed when his country won the bid to host the 2016 Olympics. A rowdy crowd at Botequim Carioca Brazilian Bar & Grill agreed, hoisting caipirinhas and cold drafts while celebrating news of Latin America's first Summer Games.
Botequim is setting some precedents of its own. For instance, it is the first outdoor café beneath those towering, near-tenantless condos on Biscayne Boulevard (across the street and one block north of the American Airlines Arena). According to its website, Botequim is likewise the "first upscale Brazilian appetizer restaurant in the U.S.!" That's harder to believe than a tag team of Obama and Oprah coming up empty-handed, but we'll grant there are no other upscale Brazilian appetizer restaurants in the neighborhood — and no other restaurants in sight at all. Signage is up for an eventual Ziggy's Pizzeria on the next block, but for now, Botequim has this field to itself.
The restaurant is divided into two rooms with floor-to-ceiling glass windows fronting them. The entrance room is busy, thanks to a colorful bar stocked with lots of cachaça for caipirinhas. Botequim prepares this bouncy Brazilian cocktail straightforwardly and stiff (just right) — $7 each, but Thursday and Friday happy hours (5 to 8 p.m.) bring two for one. Now that summer has passed, the weather at these hours is ideal for relaxing at outdoor tables sprawled on an elevated patio overlooking Biscayne Boulevard.
900 Biscayne Blvd.
Miami, FL 33132
The sidewalk below is bricked in an abstract pattern that is part of a lengthy, recently completed art project composed by the late Roberto Burle Marx, a legendary Brazilian landscape architect. Looks like Lula has a point.
Most starters can be categorized as meat, fried food, or fried meat. Pasteles appear to be the most popular. These fried half-moon pockets come filled with either melted Catupiry cheese (a silky Brazilian cream cheese); blandly seasoned ground beef; shrimp and Catupiry; or two of each in the pastel misto. We especially enjoyed six cleanly fried, savorily seasoned salt cod dumplings, known as bolinho de bacalhau, and a hefty portion of costelinha de porco. The latter item brought small, greaselessly fried pork ribs piled alongside thick sticks of fried yuca; the only negative was a side of barbecue sauce, which tasted like it was poured from a jar of Open Pit.
Other appetizers include yuca fries with Gorgonzola dressing; yuca fries stuffed with shredded jerked beef; barbecue sausage with rosemary toast; and fried chicken dumplings filled with cheese. Among the few non-fried starters is an escondidinho de camarão, a bowl of baby shrimp (the teeny, tasteless ones) in tomato-based sauce beneath cassava cream and melted Catupiry cheese. The other ingredients more than compensate for the shrimp. Avoid casquinha de siri, an "exotic crab specialty" of shredded shellfish mixed with breadcrumbs and Parmesan cheese. The muddy-colored mass was too fishy and salty.
A series of grilled meat plates that sound like main courses is offered as appetizers for two. These include a "baby rodizio" that can "start" the meal with sirloin, skirt, and flank steaks; pork loin; barbecue sausage; and yuca. Diners may also traipse the heavy fantastic via grilled strips of either picanha steak, chicken, or shrimp topped with sautéed onions and melted cheeses.
This is not exclusively an appetizer menu. Many of the same meats offered as starters come in main courses. The signature steak, for both Botequim and Brazil, is the intensely flavorful cut of top sirloin called picanha. Here it's plated with dark, crunchy, delectable (if greasy) onion rings and "mystery rice" streaked with egg bits and imbued with a seductively smoky taste derived from numerous bacon nubs. Other steaks, including filet mignon and what turned out to be a somewhat tough New York strip, come accessorized in various ways — with tomato sauce and mozzarella cheese, with fried eggs, or au poivre with Piedmontese rice, etc. Entrées also include a fried chicken treatment, fried fish with tartar sauce, and a couple of pastas.
One of the few noteworthy non-steak items is cozido (a combo plate of boiled meats and vegetables), which is served exclusively for lunch the first Sunday of the month. The feijoada is another, and it just wouldn't be right to visit Botequim and not sample this meaty black-bean stew that is Brazil's national dish. Here the beans are simmered slowly with sausages, smoked pork ribs, and jerked beef, and served sizzling-hot in a sizable black tureen (menu says it's for two, but it can feed four). Mini-tureens of add-ins include rice, flavorfully cooked in stock; fried pork chicharrones; shreds of refried collard greens; and roasted grains of manioc flour called farofa, which gives the dish a cassoulet-like texture. A peeled, sliced orange is usually offered as well, but we didn't get one. The feijoada's tangle of smoky, salty, seductive tastes is the culinary equivalent of capoeira.
The menu boasts "Brazilian-style processed draft beer." Choose between a garoto (small glass) or a tulipa (slightly larger glass), either claro (light) or escuro (dark). If you don't speak Portuguese, remember these terms, because the menu doesn't translate them. When told the draft brews were Coors (claro) and Killian's Irish Red (escuro), we wondered what was meant by "Brazilian-style." On one occasion, a server explained that the apparatus that stores and pours the drafts, and keeps the brews frosty, is from Brazil. On a return visit, the waiter ascribed the Brazilian nature to the type of glasses used, an explanation that made sense because they were indeed distinctive vessels for beer. On the other hand, the draft Killian was ice-cold and topped with a noticeably foamy head.
Prices are as inviting as a Brazilian bikini. A bowl of black-bean stew is $3; soup du jour, onion rings, and croquettes cost $5 to $6; and the rest of the appetizers range from $8 to $14. The grilled meat starters for two run $13 to $25. Main courses are $16 to $28, the high number representing filet mignon and the feijoada para dos. Portions are generous, the fare is bulky, and the number of plates needed to sate is few. An "executive" lunch menu brings many of the same steaks, as large as the dinner servings and plated with mounds of starchy sides for $14 to $16.
Dessert offerings, $4 to $7, encompass familiar treats such as molten chocolate cake, tiramisu, and profiteroles, but the last are different from the usual round cream puffs. These come as two soft chocolate squares, angled in a martini glass, that are creamier, puffier, and airier than the archetype. And they are scrumptious. Lighter, more Latin licks are likewise proffered, such as papaya cream drizzled with cassis, guava jam paired with Catupiry cheese, and a champagne flute of limoncello swirled with lemon gelato.
Speaking English isn't necessarily the staff's strong suit, but service is warm and friendly, as is the general vibe. Botequim is the sort of place that might inspire you to linger over coffee, espresso, or after-dinner drinks. This is especially true weekend nights and evenings of events at the arena, when crowds pile into the restaurant, excitement fills the air, and festive patrons spill onto the outdoor patio and party like it's, um, 2016.