- Walter Novak
- The Brazilian beef tenderloin may make you forget you came for the appetizers.
Ask well-seasoned chef and restaurateur Sergio Abramof to classify his newest dining room, the svelte and sexy Saravá at Shaker Square, and he's likely to call it "a neighborhood spot." Pass along that analysis to a dinner guest, though, and don't be surprised if he responds as a recent companion did, gazing around the room in awe before announcing: "Whoa, this guy must be living in one helluva 'hood!"
Zip codes notwithstanding, it will take most visitors mere moments to decide that Saravá (the name is a Brazilian greeting, analogous to "aloha" or "shalom") has nothing in common with their friendly neighborhood Applebee's; and if the valet parking, coat check, and samba soundtrack don't tip them off, there's always the menu, a concise but mouthwatering collection of Brazilian-style bar noshes, apps, and entrées.
Made for nibbling, sharing, and eating with your fingers, those noshes -- the Brazilian-born Abramof calls them "street plates" -- form the cornerstone of the Saravá dining experience; and they can be as inconsequential as a handful of salty cashews or as sturdy as buttery queso blanco (a smooth, semisoft cheese similar to mozzarella), sliced, crumbed, and gently fried to melty-crisp perfection.
And that's just for starters. Proceed to an assortment of fat green and black olives, for instance, marinated in a zesty blend of olive oil, garlic, and crushed red pepper, and just try to keep from smiling. Add an order of warm, bouncy Brazilian cheese-bread puffs (pao de queijo), served with a fresh tomato relish, and we dare you not to laugh out loud.
Dig the raw-bar scene? Saravá has a good one, its icy expanse bristling with lobster tails, crab claws, freshly prepared gulf shrimp, and clams on the half shell. We can't remember the last time we made chilled oysters disappear so quickly; but a half-dozen Malbecs -- shimmering, sweet, and nearly insubstantial -- seemed to evaporate the moment they passed our lips.
We're also fans of the kitchen's small, thin-crusted pizzas, graced with anything from lobster to charred eggplant. We had ours topped with sliced mushrooms, caramelized onion, and bits of lean linguiça, a finely textured pork sausage with a hauntingly delicate flavor. Mmm.
Match any -- or all -- of these savory tidbits with something from the specialty-cocktail menu, and it's hard to figure how an after-work wind-down or a weekend break could get much better. Personally, we're crazy about both the ballsy, bittersweet caipirinhas, composed of freshly crushed limes and cachaça (a Brazilian liquor made from sugarcane juice), and the macho mojitos, crafted from fresh mint, limes, and rum (both are priced at $6.95). The small, informative, and exceptionally well-organized wine menu is worth a look too.
(And in true neighborhood style, Saravá welcomes the small fry: An unusually long, interesting, and relatively sophisticated kids' menu -- garlicky shrimp, beef churrasco, or rice and beans, Junior? -- will help budding gourmets travel well beyond the realm of chicken tenders and hot dogs.)
The downside is that diners who get into the spirit of Saravá-style dining may close in on their caloric limit long before they reach the entrées. But even if your party has to share it 'round the table (which is just fine by Abramof and his staffers, incidentally), it's worth ordering the feijoada, a profoundly rich, seductively flavorful black-bean stew, chock-full of linguiça, smoked bacon, ham, and pork loin, and served over rice, with garnishes of fried spinach, fresh tomato relish, orange slices, farofa (a coarse blend of toasted manioc flour, butter, and herbs, used as much for its texture as its taste), and a mouthwatering lime-and-pepper sauce that's so sprightly and bright, it's a wonder it stays on the plate.
In fact, if we have any complaints about the food, it's that compared to the feijoada, most of the other entrées we sampled seemed vaguely dull. Brazilian beef tenderloin, for example, was almost unbelievably lush, but despite garnishes of farofa, orange slices, and the tomato relish, it didn't spring to life until we goosed it with salt.
Same for the Shrimp Baiana: While the half-dozen pan-seared shrimp, served over rice, could not have been more pristine, the featherweight sauce barely whispered of coconut milk and seemed entirely mute when it came to promised notes of garlic and malaguetta pepper. Chicken Bossa Nova, too, could have used more oomph. Although the plump grilled breast was shockingly moist, and the coarsely mashed potatoes were suitably light, and the dollop of smoked-bacon sauce was entirely savory, we still found ourselves reaching for salt and pepper to wake up what was, overall, a sort of sleepy dish.
Such observations aside, though, there can be no doubt that the 200-seat spot, which opened in late November, has quickly become wildly popular with its East Side clientele, drawing the kind of smart, enthusiastic, and food-savvy crowds that previously had only Doug Katz' nearby Fire to fuel their appetites. Fortunately, Saravá seats until midnight on weekends. At 9 p.m. on a recent Saturday, for instance, nearly every one of the restaurant's numerous nooks, crannies, tables, and barstools was occupied by noisy neighbors, and waves of wannabe-seateds were still rolling in.
If nothing else, it goes to prove that familiarity, predictability, and cookie-cutter sameness are not necessarily the recipe for success, even in neighborhood restaurants. After all, we can count on one hand the menus in town that feature feijoada and still have digits left over to stir our caipirinhas. That at least one of those menus used to be found at Abramof's other establishment, the 10-year-old Sergio's on University Circle (which recently tilted its menu toward Mediterranean and Asian fare), just supports our contention that "neighborly" needn't mean boring.
While Abramof and his executive kitchen manager, Willie Jackson (whose prior record includes a short-lived but memorable gig at former soul-food station Alexandria's on Main), can share credit for the out-of-the-ordinary eats, kudos for the sophisticated surroundings go to architect Joe Hanna. A specialist in designing urban entertainment venues (including downtown's Pickwick & Frolic), Hanna has somehow managed to turn this formal, historic space -- part of the Van Sweringen brothers' circa-1927 vision of Georgian-style loveliness -- into a swingin' Rio hot spot, complete with low ceilings, a meandering floor plan, and a wraparound bar with enough mid-century panache to make even the Thin Man feel at home.
While we didn't actually spot Nick and Nora, our table near the windows yielded a prime view of the bar and its bustling real estate. As we scoped out the action, we shared bites of indulgently rich coconut-butter cake and spoonfuls of custardy flan, then washed it all down with sips of honeylike Café Brasil Santos for two, poured from a little French press. My companion raised his demitasse in a salute.
"To Mr. Abramof's neighborhood," he said. "Long may it prosper!"
We'll drink to that.