TEMPERO DO BRASIL -- the Flavor of Brazil -- is Washington state's only Brazilian restaurant, and the U-District's finest new addition. At the north end of University Way in a cozy spot formerly occupied by Il Paesano, fine food miracles are taking place nightly, with fresh ingredients, ingenious spicing, and friendly (even happy!) vibes coming together to create a special feel.

An inviting bowl of limes and fresh ginger root, resting on the counter between the small kitchen and the dining room, is the first thing entering diners see. Tempero do Brasil opened in early November, but has already created a buzz resulting in brisk business and occasional short waits. Don't worry, though -- as you wait for a table, you'll be able to look into the kitchen and watch fresh collard greens going from sink to cutting board to frying pan to plate, as energetic cooks and co-owners Bryant Urban and Graca Ribeiro chop, pound, and flip fresh ingredients, pausing happily to tell you what's good tonight.

On the appetizer menu, Crab Cakes ($6.75 for two) are delicate and moist, not overly dense or breaded. With a squeeze of the fresh citrus served with every course, they are unbeatable. Vatapa ($1.75), a small dish of pâté made from flour, shrimp, ginger, coconut milk, and palm oil, left us a bit unsure of how to eat it (we decided on spoons, and felt a little like babies eating Gerber), but the flavor is unusual and appealing. Butter Clams ($6.95), served in a cleverly boozy broth (we thought it was vermouth, but were told later by Chef Urban that it was a sweet chardonnay), are fresh and tiny, although we missed having bread to dip in the liquid. In the absence of a dipping vehicle, we discreetly drank it like soup, sipping it out of the shells. Brazilian cuisine does not employ large quantities of bread, helping us avoid the dreaded stuffed-before-the-main-course situation, leaving us in perfect condition to tackle our entrées.

Of the four fish stews on the menu, we chose the suggested Moqueca de Peixe ($13.95), a halibut stew of coconut milk, lime juice, vegetables, and palm oil. "People are scared of palm oil, but we just put in a tiny bit for flavor," states Urban. Co-owner Ribeiro hails from the city of Salvador in the Brazilian province of Bahia, where the Moqueca is a specialty. The flavors are well-blended, not overpowering, and spiced delicately enough to render each item -- cilantro, lime, and red, green, and yellow peppers -- recognizable. All the entrées came with a plate of steamed rice, just the right partner for the sauces and broths left on the plates. Argentinean beef plays a big role here, and we sampled Bife Acebolado ($9.95), Argentinean rib steak sliced thin, pounded aggressively, and fried with sautéed onions and garlic.

A weekend event in Brazil is the preparation of Feijoada (pronounced fay-ZHWAH-duh), Brazil's most famous regional dish. This long-simmering stew of black beans, ham hocks, sausage, and beef (also offered in a vegetarian version, complete with vegetarian greens) showcases firm-bodied collard greens, kissed with garlic and a hint of bacon flavor. The Feijoada ($10.95, $7.95 for the vegetarian version) comes to the table in a lidded clay pot, and is sumptuous when spooned over rice and/or greens. Hot sauce made by third co-owner Antonio Ribeiro adds an unusual fire to any dish, with its habañero-vinegar base.

Tempero do Brasil has a liquor license, and the Brazilian cocktails are refreshing indeed. In the Caipirinha (billed as the Brazilian national drink), Cachaca (liquor from sugar cane) is muddled with lime and sugar, and disappears quickly. Desserts are pleasingly authentic as well. Pudim de Leite ($1.75) is perfectly sized caramel flan, cooked fresh and beautifully presented with aching simplicity. Romeu e Julieta (guava preserves and cheddar cheese served with slightly whipped, very slightly sweetened cream, $1.75) left us wowed, particularly when we learned the trick of putting a little of all three components together in the same bite.

At Tempero do Brasil, Brazilian cuisine's blend of Brazilian-Indian, Portuguese, and African influences results in exhilarating dining. Tempero do Brasil deserves to be moved quickly to the top of any diner's "where-to-eat-next" list. Owners Urban, Ribeiro, and Ribeiro have created a pleasant space and a menu which can only be described as dynamite.

Tempero do Brasil, 5628 University Way NE, 523-6229. Tues-Thurs 4:30-10 pm, Fri 4:30 pm-1:30 am, Sat 2 pm-1:30 am, Sun 2-8 pm. $$.

"Where to Eat" Price Scale (per entrée)

$ = $10 and under; $$ = $10-20; $$$ = $20 and up