A restaurant concept has to match its setting for the whole formula to work. Just as a sprawling property in a suburban lifestyle center would never be a good fit for a hip farm-to-table bistro, one would hope to never find a tacky theme restaurant in a historic neighborhood dive.
I can't imagine a better fit for Batuqui than the spot it calls home, a charming 120-year-old Victorian tucked among the antique shops and bookstores on Larchmere Boulevard. The warm and welcoming space feels more like an extension of somebody's home kitchen than an impersonal commercial property, an arrangement that happens to meld seamlessly with gregarious owner Carla Flood's vision.
Batuqui means rhythm, and this easygoing Brazilian restaurant quickly is finding its groove. On nice evenings, diners spill out of the snug 38-seat eatery onto the covered front porch and slightly larger umbrella-dotted front patio, which snuggles up to the sidewalk earning smiles from curious passersby. Open since May, the Brazilian eatery is routinely bustling, a testament both to its genial staff and distinctive but approachable food.
Flood worked at the popular Brazilian-themed restaurant Sarava, which closed a few years back in the wake of chef-owner Sergio Abramof's death. Batuqui revives not only many of the signature dishes served at that erstwhile Shaker Square eatery, but also, in some ways, the spirit of Abramof himself, who championed the vibrant flavors of his native Brazil.
One of the best ways to experience Sarava was to sit at the bar and enjoy a few rounds of caipirinhas and salgadinhos, Brazil's version of tapas. While the wee five-seat bar fills up fast — and Batuqui's boozy caipirinhas ($10) could use a bit of a tune-up — the roster of finger-friendly starters can be enjoyed throughout the restaurant. Copper-colored salt cod croquettes ($8) are crispy on the outside and creamy within, with a mild fish flavor that benefits from a squirt of lime. Skewers of juicy grilled beef or chicken ($8) are paired with farofa, toasted cassava flour, and a bright tomato and onion relish. Ask for hot sauce and you'll be rewarded with a fruity but deadly scotch bonnet puree.
Other cocktail-friendly snacks include red-slicked shrimp ($10) in a tart and spicy sauce, stewed calamari ($8) in a spicy tomato broth, and cheesy bread balls ($7) that taste better after being dipped in any of the aforementioned sauces. For a refreshing break from the highly spiced appetizers, dig into the palmito salad ($8), a summery mix of tender hearts of palm, sliced cucumber, tomatoes and greens in a tangy vinaigrette.
In addition to cachaça-fueled cocktails like the caipirinha and the strawberry-scented Copa Kiss ($10), the menu has a surprisingly good mix of white and red wines by the glass and bottle. Highlights include a Willamette Valley white blend ($8), a Portuguese vinho verde ($7) and an Argentinian Malbec ($8).
Batuqui's Brazilian entrees tend to be rustic and satisfying, with plenty of meat, rice and beans, naturally. Though it might sound out of place in summer, the stew-like feijoada ($18) balances flavorful portions of pork and sausage with more than equal parts of rice, black beans and cool tomato relish. A mound of crispy farofa adds a crispy crunch. Lighter yet is the xim xim ($14), a tropical stew of tender shredded chicken, peanuts and rice in creamy coconut sauce.
If it's meat you seek, consider ordering either of the two "churrasco" dishes. One features a sizeable grilled tri-tip sirloin ($18), the cut of choice in Brazilian churrascarias, or steakhouses. The other is a mixed grill ($17), with pieces of top sirloin, chicken and sausage. Both come with the requisite rice, farofa and tomato relish.
In the seafood department, there's a flavorful if unadventurous seafood pasta ($14), with fettucini, shrimp and smoked salmon in a light cream sauce.
Though we never managed to save enough room for desserts, we'll be back to try the caramel flan and the coconut butter cake with creme anglaise, whipped cream and toasted coconut.
Service wasn't without its gaffes. A server one night seemed absent-minded, only bothering to inform us after we placed our order that the kitchen was out of two of our requested items. Later, he managed to deliver my entree in two parts, one of which was the meat that belonged inside the stew.
But a later visit went off without a hitch, with thoughtful suggestions, expert timing and enthusiasm throughout — proof that every restaurant requires a certain amount of time under its belt before it finds its batuqui.