The feijoada at Via Brasil is an absolute delight. Considered the national dish of Brazil, it’s really more of a set meal of several components, providing an explosion of colors and flavors. Sure, feijoada originated in Portugal, and each former colony from Mozambique to Macau has its own version, but never has it been carried to such heights as in Brazil, and rarely has New York seen such a lush rendition.
The dish is a dense stew of black beans seething with pork and beef parts, something like French cassoulet. Some meats are smoked, some fatty, some fibrous, and others you simply won’t be able to identify, though if you dredge up a curly morsel, it’s probably pig tail. Crumbly? Blood sausage. The superiority of Brazil’s feijoada derives from its African influences, which perfectly complement the European ones.
Brazilian expat families survey the scene, whispering in Portuguese
There’s a bowl of shredded raw kale that glints and glistens with oil, looking like something available at healthy food mecca Dimes or By Chloe. Though it seems totally modern, the kale salad originated among the five million tribal Africans abducted to Brazil between 1501 and 1866. Ditto with farofa, a gritty condiment of manioc meal sauteed with bits of bacon. The final two elements are a saucer of orange segments (said to aid digestion) and a vast plate of white rice, which serves as a staging platform for everything else.
Founded in 1978, Via Brasil is located on a block of West 46th Street known as Little Brazil, which once boasted dozens of restaurants, haberdasheries, shipping concerns, and variety stores selling South American goods. Now all that remains are three restaurants and a store specializing in bathing suits. Via Brasil is the best of the eateries, decorated with an old-fashioned opulence that includes swirling stone tiles in the front barroom, a white piano for Brazilian jazz performances, a profusion of parrots, and leather banquettes that trail into the stained-wood interior, where Brazilian expat families survey the scene, whispering in Portuguese.
With entrees in the $18 to $29 range, the place looks as expensive as a typical bistro-level restaurant, but instead of small servings devoid of sides, that price gets you massive plates of food with all the trimmings, so that you can barely contemplate apps or desserts. The single serving of feijoada ($27) feeds two, while the portion for two ($34), would do fine for three. Dating from the days when there were no churrascarias in town, Via Brasil also provides a menu of grilled meats, of which the assortment called Rio Grande delivers chicken pieces, a thick pork chop, a sirloin steak, and a smoke-laced sausage. At $27, there’s no better meat deal in town.
Instead of small servings devoid of sides, that price gets you massive plates of food with all the trimmings, so that you can barely contemplate apps or desserts.
Other impressive repasts include vatapa, an Afro-Brazilian assemblage that consists of a big hunk of fish and handful of shrimp arranged on a thick porridge of bread crumbs and coconut milk colored bright orange with dende (palm oil). Back home, the dish would probably be spicy as hell, but here flavorings are toned down somewhat, which does not prevent deliciousness. Served with a yuca puree, muqueca camarones (shrimp stew) is another Afro-Brazilian delight here rendered in stately and restrained fashion.
Many main courses reflect the country’s European heritage from Portugal, Italy, and even Russia. You might try bacalhau a Gomes de sa, a delectable casserole of dried cod, spuds, and onions that tastes like Lisbon; bife a parmigiana com spaghetti, a breaded Milanese cutlet smothered in cheese that one might find on nearly any menu in the world; and strogonoff de frango, a cream-and-cognac-laced chicken rendition of a czarist classic. Soon after Spain and Portugal conquered the South American continent militarily and politically, Italy and Russia did so culinarily.
You don’t really need apps, but while your party is waiting for mains to arrive, you might happily munch on a shared serving of the restaurant’s signature salad, which includes oranges and hearts of palm. Also recommended: pao de quiejo ($6), the little Brazilian cheese balls whose bouncy texture is a result of tapioca, the cod cake, or a simple bowl of the kale-bearing Portuguese soup caldo verde.
The bar sports a line of antique bottles of cachaça, the signature spirit of Brazil, where the population consumes 390 million gallons annually. Distilled from sugar cane, it tastes more like Italian grappa than Cuban rum. The unaged variety is best consumed in the lime-muddled cocktail caipirinha, and there are five or six cachaças available for that purpose. The most popular is Pichu; it has a harsh flavor that some may enjoy. My favorite is Ypióca, made in the northeastern coastal state of Ceara. It has a smooth taste and makes a cocktail that doesn’t take the enamel off your teeth, figuratively speaking.
Ultimately, Via Brasil is a notable paragon of relaxed dining, a place where you can feel like you’re on vacation. The food is better than it needs to be, but it’s in the core Brazilian menu of feijoada, bobo de camarones, pao de queijo, and vatapa, that the restaurant really shines.
Cost: Dinner for two, including pao de queijo, feijoada completa, two caipirinhas, and tax but not tip, $70.
Sample dishes: Bacalhau a Gomes de sa, frango com quiabo (chicken and okra), sortidos de Via Brasil (assorted fritters), carne seca com abobora (beef jerky with pumpkin)
What to drink: Don’t miss the caipirinha, the national drink. A range of Brazilian beers and sodas are also available.
Bonus tip: The food at Via Brasil is sometimes blander than it should be. This can be remedied by requesting the house-made hot sauce: two kinds of chiles — one round, orange, and sweet, the other red, elongated, and fiery — plunged in vegetable oil.