- Walter Novak
- Sergio's, where exotic flavors come together in comforting combinations.
University Circle was hopping -- in a dignified manner, of course -- on a recent Saturday night, with a Cleveland Orchestra concert scheduled for Severance Hall and an evening affair taking place at the Cleveland Museum of Art. Cars streamed into nearby parking lots. Sidewalks overflowed. And, in a remodeled carriage house just off East Boulevard, chef-restaurateur Sergio Abramof and his staff prepared to host another merry crowd of diners.
Not that it takes much to make a 46-seat dining room seem crowded. Abramof's restaurant, the eponymous Sergio's, is so tiny that departing guests sometimes have to stand in line to exit, and newcomers get elbowed from hither to yon as they wait to take a seat. Happily, Sergio's guests are a civilized lot, mostly middle-aged professionals, intellectuals, and assorted culture vultures from the nearby institutions, and nobody gets too cranky.
Then again, it could be the salubrious effects of the caipirinha that had everyone feeling so fine. This beguiling cocktail is made of cachaça (a liquor distilled from sugar cane, with a flavor somewhere between rum and tequila), sugar, and crushed lime, and is the national drink of Brazil. There is a good reason for that: Crisp, sweetly sour, and carrying a considerable punch, caipirinha makes the night seem warmer, friends seem dearer, and even a little corner in Cleveland seem vaguely foreign and exotic. Besides the caipirinha, the bar also stocks a selection of Brazilian, German, and Dutch beers; a reasonably priced assortment of red and white wines by the bottle, half-bottle, and glass; and guarana, a not-too-sweet, highly stimulating soft drink made from Brazilian rainforest fruit.
Abramof lived in Brazil until he was 10 years old, moved to Massachusetts, graduated from Cleveland Heights High School, and mastered the nuances of Italian and Mediterranean cuisine during a 14-year stand as executive chef at Giovanni's in Beachwood. Now that he is happily installed in his own restaurant, his menu is a multicultural reflection of all his culinary history, with a little bit of Asian spice thrown in for good measure. Although the kitchen makes use of some fairly exotic ingredients -- malaguetta pepper for mellow heat, sweet coconut milk for balance, and crunchy farofa (toasted and ground cassava root) for texture, for example -- the resultant dishes are typically simple, straightforward, and comforting. Servings are ample, prices are moderate, and niceties abound: Diners are quickly wooed with warm, crusty rolls from Presti's bakery in Little Italy, and the menu prominently notes that the kitchen will gladly do its best to accommodate requests for reduced butter, pepper, salt, or oil, or to produce vegetarian versions of most items. No wonder the place is packed.
The Brazilian kitchen draws from the pantries of three main ethnic groups -- native Indian, Portuguese, and African -- and some of the flavor combinations on Sergio's menu seem at least a little familiar to well-exercised palates. For instance, a bowl of moist and meaty feijoada, a rich black-bean stew flavored with pork sausage, ham, smoked bacon, and roasted pork, served over rice, with garnishes of farofa, carioca relish (a fresh tomato salsa similar to pico de gallo), and a little pitcher of pepper-lime sauce, summoned up gastronomic memories of jambalaya. Shrimp baiana, a traditional toss of luscious flash-sautéed shrimp in a light sauce of garlic, scallion, malaguetta pepper, and coconut milk, was all-Brazilian, yet it held a subtle Thai undertone. And prato misto, the feijoada's meat-free cousin, featured the same smoky black beans served over rice, this time topped with sautéed carrot, asparagus, corn, summer squash, and bits of mushroom, and a garnish of farofa, carioca relish, and fried spinach; the result was a rustic dish that seemed almost archetypal in its simplicity.
Still, we could have gone for a bit more complexity in our Brazilian-style tenderloin, a thick piece of beef sided with the by-now-familiar black beans, rice, and farofa. Although the meat was absolutely tender and cooked as ordered to a juicy medium-rare, it lacked much flavor, despite reportedly having been marinated in garlic, black pepper, and port. It perked up when we dosed it with a few shakes from the tiny salt shaker on the table.
During a Wednesday-night visit, our meals also got a little revving-up from the tantalizing live entertainment provided by vocalist Fernanda Cunha and guitarist Michael Manderen. Snuggled into a tiny corner at the front of the dining room, the pair made beautifully sultry Brazilian music throughout the evening and helped us pretend that Cleveland-in-February was no longer waiting for us just outside the door. The duo will continue to work their transient magic each Monday and Wednesday evening throughout the long, cold winter.
Among appetizer alternatives, we gave high marks to the fried Spanish cheese: a thick slice of slightly salty white cheese (like a firm mozzarella) in a fine crumb crust, served over a savory tomato sauce piqued with capers, kalamata olive, and the slowly building heat of puréed malaguetta peppers. Tender Beef Churasco -- cubes of luscious skewered meat -- had an enticingly smoky aroma, rounded out with a few spoonfuls of rice, a zesty, pesto-like sauce of scallions and parsley, and a bit of carioca relish. Chicken Passarinho, bite-sized morsels of very tender breast meat in a sweet, mildly spicy white wine and garlic sauce, was a tasty diversion. And the Calamari Sauté, with its tender, simply prepared rings settled in a light tomato broth and served with wedges of garlic toast for dipping, was pleasantly understated.
Abramof and his chef Craig Hanson have a skillful touch with the hot peppers, using them to develop a mellow, well-rounded flavor in many of the appetizers and entrées, rather than resorting to the cheap trick of searing the palate with heat. Still, diners wishing to recalibrate sensitive tastebuds between courses should consider one of Sergio's light salads as a refresher. A petite lemon-fennel salad, for example, with its finely cut strips of crunchy fennel, shaved Parmesan, sliced raw mushroom, and a hint of freshly ground pepper, finished with a touch of lemony vinaigrette, felt clean and bright on the tongue. And a roasted beet salad, with thick slices of buttery beet and rings of red onion set against a tangle of baby greens in a mandarin orange vinaigrette, was a pure and simple interlude. (We selected the roasted beet dish from a fairly lengthy list of daily appetizer and entrée specials that had been printed up and slipped into Sergio's standard menu; that's a thoughtful approach that spares servers and diners alike the usual tiresome recitations.)
Another special, chargrilled yellowfin tuna, took its flavor cues from Asia but continued the menu's overall theme of lightness and clarity. Here, a generously sized filet was partnered with scallion-flecked rice, wakame (seaweed) salad, a bouquet of sharp radish sprouts, a bit of pickled ginger, and a modest amount of sweet-and-spicy hoisin sauce. Our only quibble was that the tuna, while lushly rare in the middle, was surprisingly dry along the edges.
It's worth saving room for one of Hanson's housemade desserts. Cool, rich Brazilian caramel custard -- similar to flan -- was a cut above average, as was a big wedge of unusually creamy cheesecake. But our hands-down favorite was the warm, dense coconut butter cake, so moist and sweet that it verged on pudding, extravagantly doused with freshly whipped cream and settled on a satiny pool of crème Anglaise. For a final touch of luxe, we paired our desserts with little pots of sweetened Café Brasil Santos, a smooth, robust French-pressed coffee for two.
Sure, the space is small. But what Sergio's lacks in square footage, it makes up for with style, warmth, and intelligence. That's what real stature is all about.