Intentionally or not, Botequim is tough to find. The restaurant is located in the basement of the Hyatt Union Square, a graceless modern tower stuck on a smaller and better building at the corner of 4th Avenue and 13th Street. If you can locate the sidewalk entrance on the south side of the complex, you may traipse down a very steep concrete stairway that makes it feel like you're on the way to apply for a janitor's job. From the lobby elevator, the restaurant can only be accessed by a button that says Health Club.
Botequim is a side project of Marco Moreira and Joann Makovitzky, who also operate 15 East and Toqueville, two distinguished restaurants on the opposite side of the square. It lies underneath The Fourth, a lobby restaurant run by the same pair, serving such faddish fare as yellowfin tuna tartare, a hamburger on a tomato-flavored bun, and Amish chicken cooked under a pink-salt brick. Unavoidably, Botequim seems like the homely orphan in a fairy tale, a tentative answer to the question: Whatever shall we do with this big empty basement?
Turn it into a Brazilian tavern, which is what "botequim" means. In fact, Moreira is himself Brazilian and the restaurant was launched as a pop-up during the World Cup, and apparently did quite well. But the rec room premises soccer fans will put up with may not be the same ambiance they prefer for fine dining. Doing little to dispel the gloom, the streaky black-and-white murals recall Keith Haring, minus the crawling babies. There's an open kitchen at one end of the double dining room, and samba throbs over the P.A. — the surdo (bass drum) is loud enough to make the silverware rattle.
But hey, the city desperately needs more Brazilian restaurants. The cuisine is a wondrous mash-up of Portuguese, West African, and Pan-American influences —zippy, zesty, with unexpected twists and turns, like a race car slightly out of control. But Botequim plays it a little too safe, offering a greatest hits of Brazilian cooking with a menu entirely too predictable. Certainly the feijoada completa ($26) — the national dish, based on a tropicalized Portuguese model — is a triumph. Sailing in on a platter and in a pot, the seething mass of black beans and smoky pig parts is like a darker cassoulet, accompanied by orange slices, the toasted manioc meal called farofa, and shredded collard greens glistening with oil. The addition of sliced starfruit constitutes Botequim's modest though welcome innovation.
The suckling pig doesn't suck either — presented, in a feat of cooking legerdemain, as a perfect compressed cube with the crisp pepper-crusted skin on top. But the accompaniments are identical to those of the feijoada, and wouldn't it be better to have the meat freshly cut in slices rather than presented in a cat-foody mass? Next to the feijoada, the most successful entrée is something described as a "pot roast of country chicken" ($24), an ample half-bird in deep-brown gravy sitting on a cushion of polenta shotgunned with kernels of fresh corn. The polenta is so good, you may push the chicken out of the way to get at it, and the fingers of leathery roasted okra tossed here and there make perfect use of the Afro-centric vegetable.
The moqueca is way too polite, where it should be sassy.
Speaking of Africa, the one Bahian dish from northern Brazil is a failure. The legendary moqueca has been turned into a listless pink stew with one giant head-on prawn riding a boneless plank of sea bass like a surfer, causing diners at a neighboring table to burst into laughter. Though the broth doubtlessly contains dende (palm oil, the signature ingredient of Afro-Brazilian cooking), there's not enough of it. The moqueca is way too polite, where it should be sassy. Trying to also partly function as a rodizio (all-you-can-eat steakhouse), the sole type of Brazilian restaurant Manhattan seems capable of sustaining, there's a separate list of beefsteaks and ribs. The picanha ($34) is an aged top sirloin with a glorious rim of charred fat sliced thick and concealed under a thicket of greens. It could easily feed two, except there's no starch, and the yuca fries ($6) you might order as a side are way too tough and fibrous to be enjoyable.
One welcome feature of Botequim is the size of the entrees. You can really just order a main course and dispense with the apps. Which is a good idea, given that the starters are a mixed bag, and also inconsistent. The fabled pao de quejo ($7), cheese balls baked with manioc flour for added bounciness, were too much like falafel on two occasions. Only once were they as chewy and creamy as they should be. The four salads are also rather lackluster. The dressing is oil with little discernible acid, and the strange assortment of ingredients — in one case, watercress, chickpeas, and avocados — can leave you craving more texture and diversity.
The best apps are the baby fried pies called pastelzinhos ($9), especially the one filled with fresh hearts of palm, a vegetable (tree?) beloved of Brazilians that the waiter told me was imported fresh from Rio on a weekly basis. Get an order of those or maybe the smoky grilled sausage called calabresa acebolada, and a feijoada completa, and you'll have a splendid meal at Botequim — you may even forget you're dining in the roughly finished basement of a chain hotel.
Cost: Meal for two, with wine or cocktails, two apps, and two entrees, including tax but not tip, $160.
Sample dishes: For the cocktail-inclined, there's a splendid list of caipirinhas, of which the standard is the best, but the acai and passion fruit are also worth trying; wines by the bottle and by the glass; and a short list of beers, of which Xingu Black Beer is the most interesting.
What to drink: Feijoada completa, galinha caipira a cabidela (roast chicken), leitao a pururuca (suckling pig), pastelzinhos de palmito (heart of palm empanadas), calabresa acedbolada (smoked sausage).
Bonus tip: You can easily skip the apps because the entrees are so large; if you really need a dessert, the sonho (freshly made donut holes with three dipping sauces) are splendid, but skip the lackluster fruit sorbets