October 27, 2014 | BITE: My Journal

Botequim, More Than A Bodega CLOSED

If you’re thinking of becoming a vegan, you want to have Botequim’s churrasco misto as a farewell.
 If you’re thinking of becoming a vegan, you want to have Botequim’s churrasco misto as a farewell.

           The small underground lair that is the heart of Botequim is dark and empty. I’m bewildered. Why did the reservationist say we couldn’t come at 7:30, only at 8…the usual new table tricks.  Of course, I ignored her. I’m even early. It’s 7:15. One table is occupied. The kitchen -- a rectangle of light in the darkness surrounded by the raffish black-and-white graffiti papered walls -- seems relaxed, just cranking up for the night.

It’s dark and sexy, sipping a caipirinha and watching the kitchen hop to your command.

           There is a soft bossa nova beat on the sound system. Bouncy and sexy. Impossible to stay cranky. I can imagine I’m waiting for a hot date somewhere in Rio, rather than the basement of the Union Square Hyatt Hotel. Odd spot for Hyatt boutique hotel ambitions, I’m thinking. True the Meatpacking District’s evolving lure is not far away. What was once a boulevard of shopping schlock and a dubious park hangout with its more and more essential Greenmarket has taken on airs with new starchitecture and real estate lust on the Lower East Side.

I doubt they make these cheese buns with Parmigiana Reggiano in Brazil but they do here.

           I’m always on the hunt for good eating. And this cellar is not that far from the highly-rated French-inspired Tocqueville or the serious Japanese ambitions of 15 East whose owners, Brazil-born Marco Moreira and his wife and partner Jo-Ann Makovitzky, act out their fantasy Brazil here.

Unlike clunky empanadas, the pastry of these pastelzinhos is thin and elegant.

           My friends and I are increasingly excited as Saturday’s dinner unwinds, with one delicious surprise after another. I’d asked our server to bring us little cheese breads, pão de queijo, to eat with our caipirinhas. Pastelzinhos de carne, pastry triangles filled with beef, are wrapped in delicate pastry unlike the usual doughy empanada.

I’d want to have the house-cured cod croquettes as a warmup whenever I came here.

           From the menu list of “Bites,” cuts of sausage with onion sizzling from the grill and bolinho de bacalhau -- oval croquettes of cured cod mixed with mashed fingerlings, tomato jam and olive -- are complex and perfectly fried. Nothing really needs the hot sauce in the bottle on the table, but you can torture your tongue with it anyway.

This authentic pot roast of country chicken makes most other chickens seem like sissies.

           Given the generous portions, not even our adventurous foursome needed four “Pratos Principal” ($22 to $28, $110 for a rib eye for two). But the pot roast of country chicken is unusually rich and compelling, marvelous in a black sauce boldly thickened with blood.

If you’re not Brazilian, you’re not required to order feojoada but I suggest you do anyway.

           Of course, we’ve also done justice to the feijoada -- a must on so many Brazilian menus, surely the best I’ve ever tasted here or in São Paolo. We spoon up the exuberant stew of meats and black beans from the terra cotta bowl to a platter, swirling it into a lineup of its traditional fixings: collard greens, cashew rice and slices of fresh orange. The classic Brazilian essential farofa -- ground yucca powder offered with meat -- seems ridiculous, I agree. But when you scoop it up with the stew, the grain is nutty and wonderful. For a mad moment -- is that your second or third caipirinha? -- you might wonder why farofa is not a side at The Strip House or Michael Jordan’s The Steakhouse.

Maybe it was just an off-night for the pork but ours was dry and stringy and I didn’t risk it again.

           A chorus of groans greets the massive grilled short rib ($28), sweetly blackened from the hearth, fatty and addictive, but it disappears also, even at our advanced stage of too-much. The only reject at our table is the dried-out and stringy roast suckling pig.

Black sea bass with a prawn crouched on top in a tomato-coconut milk broth.

           Now I understand why the house has insisted on sending each of us a portion of the Moqueca A Baiana -- an outsize prawn atop a thick rectangle of black sea bass lapped by a heady puddle of tomatoey coconut milk. In the oblivion of our carnivorean lust, we had ignored it. It’s a fine dish, but I might have asked for the bass “not too cooked.” 

Of course, you can’t eat another bite but if it’s these donuts, you’ll make a valiant try.

           The tables had filled by 9:30 when we tuck into the doce de leite coconut cake, and finish off the half dozen little sonho’s, dragging bits of the fried donut through three sauces -- chocolate, guava and doce de leite. Partying prides of tall women on stilts with eager drones in tow have arrived. Brazilian musicians descend too, with their muses, alerted by music fans Marco and Joann to the new bodega. The graffiti walls and the bare wooden tables, stained with various different colors in faux shabby chic, are the owners’ way of suggesting they’ve opened a simple bodega. “The Brazilians laugh because Botequim is grander and more ambitious than the name suggests,” Makovitsky reports.

Black and white graffiti-like whimsy on either side of the room makes for a sophisticated bodega.

           I worry about a too-enthusiastic first impression. Especially when I’ve been recognized. I convince myself I need to go back to taste more. Thus, the empty rumpus room with its lilting bossa nova on a subsequent Tuesday. My pal Barry Wine joins me from the bar upstairs, drinking an $18 Old Fashioned. (I’d like to take a sip just to see what an $18 Old Fashioned tastes like, but I hesitate to deprive him.) There’s no way we can be anonymous here, alas. Marco used to work for Wine at The Quilted Giraffe.

It’s called shrimp on the beach, meaning in the shell and a little bit spicy. After all, it’s Brazil.

           Half a dozen caipirinha variations are offered, but another pal, Peter, and I favor the classico. I ask the waiter to bring cod croquettes with our drinks. Again, their savory tangle make an impressive beginning. The house delivers a gift of pastelzinho, too, filled with hearts of palm and tomato. “We get fresh palm from Hawaii every week,” says the manager as the three of us admire the delicate texture of the pastry and the tangle of flavors in the croquettes. “Grilled Shrimp on the Beach” turn out to be the same large heads-on prawns in tomato broth, served in the shell. A plate of folded wet cloths for the cleanup is set down at the same time.

Rich fresh corn polenta is an essential indulgence. Yucca fries are more homey.

           Should we have a steak? “How about churrasco misto, $76 for two?” I ask. “It sounds like a parrillada in an Argentine restaurant.”

           “Do you want to order it for three?” the waiter asks eagerly.

           “No. I think it will be enough for us,” I assure him. But the kitchen goes berserk anyway. The menagerie that arrives, crowded onto the platter, hidden under a flutter of watercress, is more than we can eat, all of it banked with farofa, of course. I cut off a chunk of Brazil’s favorite top cap steak, picanha, wonderfully rare and meaty, and then another. One thick crimson slice of the flank steak is enough, but toward the end, driven by the wantonness of what remains, I take another. And that is after more than a few bites of the fatty short rib. Midway through our marathon, we discover chorizo buried underneath. That’s heady too.

When you’ve tried all the starters and feijoada too, you might still crave this rich and juicy short rib.

           It seems futile to counteract the excess with a spoonful or two of collards, especially after Barry calls attention to the rich and buttery polenta, fattened with cream and refreshed with niblets of fresh corn. He passes it around for us to take seconds, then spoons up what remains.

           “You call that finished?” I ask, using my fingers to get the last of it.

           “I would come back for this meat,” Peter announces.

           “Not more than once a month,” I suggest.

           “Once a month?” he cries. “I was thinking once a year.”

Coconut cake with doce de leite arrives glazed under the salamander.

           Barry asks to take the leftovers home for his dog. “How about for your wife,” I chastise him. “I don’t think fatty meat is good for a dog.”

I don’t understand passion fruit sorbet on top of rice pudding. But I’m from Detroit.

           Then comes coconut cake and the rice pudding, inexplicably topped with passion fruit sorbet. Neither one proves irresistible -- though sorbet on its own might be welcome at the end to clear your brain so you can find the stairs or an elevator and figure out which way is uptown. Or give in to confusion – or romantic heat -- and rent a room for the night.

           132 Fourth Avenue between 12th and 13th Streets in the subterranean space of the Union Square Hyatt.  212 432 1324. Tuesday through Thursday 6 to 11 pm, Friday through Saturday 6 to 11:30 pm. Starting November 8th, Bossa Nova brunch every Saturday, noon to 3 p.m.  Closed Sunday and Monday.

Photos may not be used without permission of Gael Greene. Copyright 2014. All rights reserved.

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