Brazil – Rio de Janeiro
February 2, 2008
(January 28, 29, 30, 2008) Rio is a bustling beach metropolis that sprawls up and down hills and for miles along the Atlantic.
It was only a few decades ago that the districts of Copacabana and Ipanema were made accessible by a tunnel cut through one of the larger hills. Now they are fronted by a six-lane, divided boulevard with a wide, sandy beach on one side and a solid line of high rises on the other, distinguished only by their lack of terraces.
The historic center of town, a mile or so north of Copacabana and reached by a clean and efficient metro that really makes NYC’s subway look third-world, is all business during the day and empty at night.. Some of the old buildings built by the Portuguese still stand, including a replica of one wing of the Louvre , defining one of the main squares. Our hotel, the Copacabana Palace, is billed as inspired by the Negresco in Nice, France, but the similarity didn’t strike us. Walking along the intricately patterned sidewalks on both sides of the boulevard, locals and tourists alike dress in the casual manner that defines the city–shorts or bathing suits, sandals, sneakers or no shoes at all.This casualness extends to dining, too; which for the most part means just plain eating. Shorts and cotton shirts are seemingly as acceptable as long pants. The restaurants are expensive and not at all elegant. On the other hand, the portions are so large that it seems acceptable to order one dish to be split between two. So perhaps Rio dining is not as expensive as it first seems.In addition to the emphasis on quantity, the saving grace is the quality of the fish and meat. Resisting the temptation to make dining an experience, we tried all the “best” Brazilian restaurants in the city searching for the more authentic national cuisine. We were generally disappointed.One highly recommended restaurant, Casa da Feijoada, served up a rather uninteresting feijoada whose many varieties of meat were served as a stew, family style, in a dark but bland sauce. At another, recommended by books, concierges and the son of a friendly restauranteur, Siri Mole, we chose their assortment of five or six separate dishes, including acarejes, mashed beans and shrimp, breaded and fried, that was singularly lacking in taste and cost more than $40. The Moqueca de Siri, a stew with tomatoes and coconut, was full of the one-inch soft shell crabs after which the restaurant is named. Fortunately, by this time we knew that one serving was enough for two diners, as well it should be at $52.
Because we didn’t come halfway around the world to eat Continental food, we passed up the Cipriani in our hotel, but suspect that there at least there is the possibility of gracious dining.
The highlight for us was an evening of Brazilian music at Vinicius Bar where Tom Jobim and Vinicius de Moreas, who wrote “The Girl from Ipanema,” used to hang out. We drank caipirinhas, the national drink of freshly crushed limes and sugarcane brandy, ate a great cheese steak sandwich and thoroughly enjoyed the singer/guitarist who was a master of what they call Modern Brazilian Music.
The cheese steak sandwich at Vinicius turned out to be one of two memorable Rio dining experiences. The other, almost too embarrassing to report, was at La Trattoria on a side street near the Copacabana Palace where we ran into some of the staff from the hotel. The pizza has got to be the best we ever had, at least on this side of the Atlantic – authentic Italian but not exactly what we were searching for in Rio.