The Grill from Ipanema
Rodizio Made Easy-o
Dining at Ipanema Brazilian Grill is, in many ways, like attending a bad wedding reception. The feel is generically celebratory, like a decked-out banquet room; the bright tile work—left over from the space's incarnation as a link in the Wolfgang Puck chain, I believe—befits the fun/tropical theme in a broad, counterfeit-feeling way. The place is packed, and the din is unbelievable. People tend to dine here in large groups, and the tables have the same demographics as those at a wedding: the twentysomethings, decked out and ready to party; the parents looking self-satisfied; my friend and I, relegated to a singles table with the out of town aunts and uncles. Our tablemates are 16 in number, loud as hell, and at one point, they all pray ("AMEN!"). Later, the staff comes out and sings "Happy Birthday" (presumably, though it could be something else entirely) in Portuguese.
Then there's the buffet, which groups of people intermittently besiege as if it were loaded with platters of gold bricks. In Portuguese, it's the mesa de frios, and it's only the beginning of the all-you-can-eat rodizio dining experience ($34.95 per person at dinner, $24.95 lunch). As I push my plate along, I helplessly envision the cutting of wedding cake, toasts, and bad dancing. It's Pavlovian.
The buffet salads exceed expectations—unlikely flavors are well married; everything's fresh and fairly luscious. Among the best combinations are carrot/cucumber/fennel, and a citrus slaw with red onion, oranges, and ruby grapefruit. A tomato, pineapple, and hot red pepper salad unforgettably combines sweet and heat and looks gorgeous. There's also an intensely salty, intensely enjoyable salt-cod salad. Guests load up on all this, plus marinated hearts of palm, mushrooms, asparagus, fruit, two kinds of shrimp, cold cuts, cheese, and more in an eat-all-you-can frenzy.
Back at our table, the completely amiable waiter brings our assortment of side dishes—phase two of the gluttony. Despite his gentle discouragement (apparently they waste a lot of food; you're not allowed to take anything home, lest people stock up for coming weeks), we've asked for all of them. Disappointingly, they're out of the quintessential Brazilian cassava, but the mealy farofa is here—dry cassava flour sautéed with eggs and onions. The other sides all outclass it: porky, garlicky greens that are less limp than American Southern–style; feijão rico, the traditional, rich black beans, also with plenty of pork bits; rice that's a little gluey in a buttery, delicious way; dense, chewy cheese bread; and puddinglike fried bananas, soft, warm, and very desserty.
Now the real-deal eating begins. We've been provided with a cardboard coaster, green on one side and red on the other, which is used to signal black-clad young guys carrying around giant skewers of meat. (The coaster's a bummer; when I ate rodizio in San Francisco, the signal was a cute little enameled metal wheel.) When the "Sim, Obrigado" side of the coaster is showing, the passadores stop and cut you a slice with a huge, sword-like knife; you're equipped with tongs to grab it as it peels away and guide it to your plate. It's hot, in more than one way. Every wedding should have this.
Unfortunately, the best part of the meal has already come and gone. Out of almost a dozen grilled meats, only the lamb is moist and tender and fabulous. Then there's linguiça—Portuguese sausage—good enough that I consider putting it in my purse, and prawns that aren't overcooked. But the marinated, Parmesan-coated pork is sour with vinegar, and though I'll eat almost anything wrapped in bacon, turkey treated thusly is dry. The real problem, though, is the beef: Cut after cut is chewy and way sub par. Garlic steak has an incinerated layer of crust, and the meat's gristly and devoid of juice. Our waiter notices uneaten beef piling up on our plates and arranges to send out a passadore with his personal favorite, the short ribs. They're the worst yet; my slice has an awful, tough carapace yet is simultaneously gelatinously raw. I point in a random direction, say, "Look!" and spit it into my napkin while my friend cranes her neck.
Then (as if to punish me) the live music starts: a guy with beads around his ankle beating a cowbell, a drummer, and a dancer in a Carnival outfit torturously wend their way around the place over and over. It's deafening. This celebration is over.