Two decades ago, Little Brazil was one of the prime tourist attractions in the Times Square area. A single block of 46th Street between Fifth and Sixth avenues held seven or so restaurants, as well as grocery and liquor stores, haberdasheries, medical offices, and a second-floor emporium displaying colorful and sometimes skimpy bathing suits — which seemed to beckon people ready to take tropical vacations. But even before the onset of the pandemic, the neighborhood was in decline and only three restaurants remained: Emporium Brasil, Via Brasil, and Ipanema. Founded in 1979 and named after a famous Rio beach, Ipanema closed soon after COVID appeared, only to spring back to life a few weeks ago.
Now situated near the Empire State Building among a flock of new hotels — 10 blocks south of Little Brazil — the restaurant is still being run by the sons of founder Alfredo Pedro, Carlos and Victor. The menu has been condensed, the prices are higher, and the premises glitzier. Near the front of the restaurant, the bar is highly embellished: fern fronds dangle like Spanish moss from a palm tree made of varnished lathe, and scattered bright lights dazzle drinkers as bartenders go through their motions in the shadows. We sat savoring the scene while sipping caipirinhas ($18).
As a beginning snack, we ordered bacalhau not a bras ($20). Normally, this dish is a simple Portuguese casserole of scrambled eggs, potatoes, and salt cod, but here it has been transformed into a delicate round mousse with crisp potato filaments on top. It was tasty, but made us long for the heartier original. Sadly, classic Brazilian bar snacks like pao de queijo (bouncy cheese balls), coxinha de frango (chicken croquettes), and pasteis (empanadas) listed on the former menu are now gone, though they are sold during the day at Bica, the restaurant’s seatless take-out next door. Sandwiches that are staples of Brazilian tavern food are absent from the restaurant menu, too. The new Ipanema is not the sort of place that wants you to have a drink and a sandwich at the bar.
We soon moved to a table in the casual dining room, outfitted with tulip light fixtures among banks of suspended white ropes, both apropos of what I couldn’t tell. Through an archway, a more formal dining room with white tablecloths and shelves of books seemed almost like a library. First, we explored the appetizers, divided into hot and cold, which turned out to be as visually appealing as our salt cod mousse had been, via chefs Giancarlo Junyent and Andre Pavlik.
A small bowl called simply “clams” ($17) sported a delicious slice of garlic toast teetering on its broad rim, sidling up to a few manila clams scented with leeks and herbs in a broth jam-packed with briny flavor. Other hot starters include mussels steamed with white wine and tomatoes, and pork belly with celeriac and pickled onions. For vegetarians, there’s a starter of mushrooms, polenta, and a poached egg.
From among the cold appetizers, the salad called “beets” featured ricotta and dill; it was good, but didn’t taste characteristically Brazilian or Portuguese, in spite of its port wine vinaigrette. Other starters included a ceviche in a leche de tigre marinade with purple sweet potatoes, and a chicken mousseline; note that the menu must resort to Spanish and French, rather than Portuguese, to describe its offerings. The dishes in this section of the menu were good, but if you were looking for familiar Brazilian flavors, you were pretty much out of luck.
Nevertheless, when it was time for entrees, we sought out more orthodox Brazilian recipes. Feijoada ($32), considered the national dish, was right on the money, a series of dishes featuring a pot of black beans seething with pork parts (though we didn’t discover any pig ear or tail), including a particularly delicious sausage. Other receptacles held chive-dotted rice of perfect moistness, the toasted cassava meal called farofa for sprinkling on top, and a bowl of shredded and barely cooked collards, as is conventional, with mandarin segments on top. These all provide bites that are in turn verdant, porky, salty, and sweet.
There’s really only one dish on the menu that reflects Afro Brazilian cooking, which is the highlight of Brazilian cuisine for me. Muqueca ($48) is a seafood stew redolent of Brazil’s colonial history, compounded of ocean creatures in a thick broth laced with dende (palm oil) and coconut milk, two tropical products with the former originating in West Africa and imparting a lovely orange color and loamy flavor. Outfitted with equal amounts of halibut, mussels, clams, shrimp, and squid, Ipanema’s version looks great, but the flavor proves pallid. This version lacks the oily pungency that characterizes the best examples I’ve tasted through the years.
In some ways, the best part of our meal were the desserts from pastry chef Alejandro Nicolon. We ordered two. Best was a slice of chocolate salame ($14) with a squiggled caramel sauce across an adjacent guarani cherry sorbet. Sour, sweet, and chocolaty, it was the richness of the chocolate and contrasting tartness of the berries that lingered on the tongue, and brought our whole meal together.
Having dined at the original location once years ago, I missed the rollicking ambiance, informality, and fried potatoes of the original joint. But does Ipanema represent the future of Brazilian cuisine in NYC? Whether or not, I still will miss Little Brazil and its more staid culinary traditions.
Ipanema is located at 3 West 36th Street, between Fifth and Sixth avenues, Herald Square