When Brazil won independence from Portugal and waved for the first time the flag of its own nation in 1822, cities like Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo experienced an astonishing wave of immigration. A German contingent was followed by a wave of Italians and Swiss. Even the Japanese were drawn to the sultry decadence of the cities and pure spirit of the rain forest, a dichotomy so tempting by its contrast that Sao Paulo now hosts the largest Japanese population outside Japan.
The greatest contribution these settlements brought to Brazil, besides the introduction of different ethnicities, was a diverse cuisine. Today both tourist and native consume everything from sauerkraut to sushi. In Sao Paulo particularly, foods not usually considered South American in scope are sometimes considered Brazilian and labeled on menus as such. What's shameful is that the international influx has overshadowed indigenous Brazilian cookery, a style as varied in flavor as it is rich in history.
Like her people, Brazil's national treats are unique mixtures of culture, but the ingredients common to most dishes -- cassava, palm oil, coconut milk, citrus fruit, hearts of palm, and endless chilies -- were first used by the native South American Indians. Portuguese colonists gradually came to depend on the local culinary standards, adapting them to their own Moorish-influenced preserves, sweets, and cereals. And the West African slaves they forced into their plantation kitchens shaped these two cuisines with a third -- the roots, beans, and smoked meats they prepared for their gourmand gods. The original soul food.
These are the tastes I hope to find when I dine Brazilian. I look for the national staple feijoada, a smoky stew of meat and black beans. Abobora Refogada, West Indian pumpkin stewed with garlic, scallions, and chilies, is another typical Brazilian favorite. I might also expect to try vatapa, a mix of dried shrimp, peanuts, cashew nuts, coconut milk, bread crumbs, ginger, and palm oil (called dende). Any creation with Brazil nuts will do for me, as will one flavored with cassava, chilies, and lime, or dende.
However unfairly, I brought these expectations with me to The Vila Restaurant, an establishment located on the ground floor of the Brazilian-owned Hotel Vila. I had heard the restaurant served Brazilian fare. I have since gotten a hearing test.
To say the Vila's menu reflects the sophisticated Sao Paulo philosophy of dining might be correct, if I were in a generous mood. But to describe the Vila as Brazilian is at best a misnomer, at worst a fraudulent misrepresentation of culinary truth.
Choices were mostly uninspired standards of the Continent, tired interpretations of nouvelle French and Italian. We panned the breast of chicken Margherita ($12.95) as too obvious and the penne porto rondo ($7.50) as too inappropriately ethnic. We sampled, however, everything else on the twelve-item menu, which was separated into four categories: appetizers, seafood or pasta, entrees, and desserts.
Diners are encouraged to choose one item from each arena for the prix-fixe menu ($22.95). With portions as precious as the selection, this may be the only way to prevent midnight munchies (not having followed the suggestion, we later snacked extensively throughout Jay Leno's Tonight Show). Plates this small should be outlawed. Besides the startling garnish -- two slices of carrot and a single snow pea -- that accompanied my filet of sole in a ginger sauce ($9.95), the dish offered little worth discussing.
I'm not sure when we left the Continent for Lilliput, but the shrimp and scallops in butter and leeks ($10.75) boasted more sauce than seafood. Served as cold as the ocean in a midwinter freeze, this selection clearly had been prepared first, then neglected until the remains -- I mean, the rest -- of the meal were ready. Our food ranged from hot to not.
The veal scaloppine in a nondescript green sauce ($17.95) had little flavor apart from its foliage. But the medallions, if not filling, were at least filled with juice and, compared with the other orders, piping hot. Tops in the comparative market was the sirloin ($15.95), our waiter's suggestion (along with the veal -- the two being the most expensive items on the menu). This plate was also distinguished by a side dish, the Betty Crocker-esque gratin dauphinois.
When asked what items on the menu were Brazilian, our waiter replied, "None." However, I could discern some influence in my main course (the sole): ginger, of African and Indian origin, wields great influence in the northeastern Bahia region, rivaling that of sugar.
And the appetizers and desserts suggested that area's influence as well, for instance, the codfish croquettes ($5.75) -- which in this case were appalling fried fish balls, but are fairly popular in Brazil and wonderful if prepared well. Cod, a fish common to many countries, is one of the few Portuguese contributions to Brazilian cooking. Like the rest of Europe, they ate it salted and dried, the curing process serving in lieu of refrigeration.
The country salad's ($3.50) crumbled bacon and whole poached egg suggested a vague Brazilian origin also. More likely, though, this item is an adaptation for American tastes, because leafy greens are generally not considered delicacies in the Brazil belt, nor are other vegetables favored by themselves. Instead, most are used to season the stews and other compilations of smoked, dried, and fresh meat.
A Brazilian's diet depends on his pocketbook as well as the region of his birth. In a country known for its economic discrepancies, only a small percentage indulge the carnivore's craving. The less affluent cook a variety of beans and local fish. Those in the Amazonian areas utilize an array of indigenous fruits, and fish for the wealth of the waters.
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Sweets, however, are a tradition for nearly everyone, which is hardly surprising in a country that is ruled by the sugar cane. At the Vila the passion fruit crepe ($4.50), filled with cream and served over a puree of fruit, was a tart treat. The rice pudding brule ($3.50) also excelled, the rice having maintained its grain instead of disintegrating into a globular mass. The chocolate mousse with almonds ($3.50), however, was disappointing, a pudding-like mound too dense for my pleasure.
Despite my interest in it, dessert does not ensure success for a restaurant. Were the Vila to abandon its Continental theme (and its chef) and develop the flair of Brazil, it might seem an establishment likely to endure, perhaps even attract the many vacationing Brazilians who frequent Miami. As it stands now, it appears that only a handful of business diners and hotel guests who don't know better are giving the kitchen staff reason to return from whence they roam during their hours off duty.
And although transience has an upside -- the menu changes every three weeks, about the lifespan of a butterfly -- I found disturbing how very temporary the Vila seemed. Incomplete, like our expectations, would be an applicable word. For despite its being open a year, we saw Spackle on the walls where outlets should be. And the enormous showcase kitchen looked entirely too new, as if never properly used. It appeared similar to a set designed for television, awaiting an operator like Jeff Smith (we hardly ever spotted the real "frugal gourmet," heard pots clanging, or sniffed the sizzle of cooking food) to release it from sterility.
THE VILA RESTAURANT 5959 SW 70th St., South Miami; 669-9108. Open daily from 7:00 to 10:00 a.m., noon to 2:30 p.m., and 6:30 to 10:30 p.m.