You need a bloody good reason before going to Camden Town in north London to eat. To drink, OK, but to eat? One more of those anonymous, look-alike, mediocre, so-called ethnic restaurants with billboards hawking happy hour in Thai, Spanish or Italian, and I'll die of boredom and bad food. But this time I thought I had one. (A good reason, that is. See opening sentence.)
The trade press and publicity that preceded the opening of Made in Brasil made much of its al fresco dining garden, outdoor barbecue, and Brazilian chef. It sounded like a fresh and genuine attempt at bringing real Brazilian cooking to Britain. As ad-man David Ogilvy's Scottish father once said mildly of his new vacuum cleaner, "they spoke highly of it in the advertisement".
The fact that it is in Camden gives me pause, but the fact that it is also a cachaceria serving 78 varieties of cachaca (sugar-cane spirit) gives me momentum. On the basis that one should never drink anything one cannot pronounce, I have been drinking cachaca ever since learning it starts with a hard c, goes on to a soft "sh" and finishes with a double s and an emphasis on the final a.
I arrive at Made in Brasil in mid-summer, so it is cold and wet. There is no stretching of legs in a breezy courtyard under a Brazilian flag mural, with barbecue smoke making our eyes water. Instead, we are inside a narrow oesophagus of dark, woody dining-room and bar with cigarette smoke making our eyes water.
Made in Brasil is both bar and restaurant and at the moment the bar is winning. Most are here for a Brahma beer or a freshly muddled caipirinha more than for an opportunity to eat chef Juarez Santana Ferreira's roast pork with pineapple, prawns in cassava cream, or feijoada meat and bean stew.
It's loud and noisy yet strangely devoid of atmosphere, in spite of the non-stop bossa-nova-driven music. Throw in some colourful, Carnevale-type headdresses, showcases of Brazilian memorabilia and an assortment of copper pots hanging from the ceiling and it all feels a bit, well, Camden Town.
At least nearly everyone is Brazilian - the bartender, the waitresses, the chef and most of the diners, apart from the odd Auf Wiedersehen Pet bloke tucking into steak and salt-cod fritters.
The fritters (bolinhos de bacalhau, £3.50) make a decent place to start, being deep-fried little footballs of creamy salt cod. But add a platter of coixinha de galinha (£3), misleadingly translated as chicken pastries, and you have very similar crumbed croquettes shaped into nippled balls, this time with an awfully gooey filling of chicken, sweetcorn and peas reduced to the texture of wallpaper paste.
Brazilian cooking is a madhouse of influences that combines the spices, rice and coffee of the Portuguese, the corn, cassava and fish of the indigenous Indians and the coconut milk, dende palm oil, okra and pepper of West Africans. It is not a refined restaurant cuisine but solid home cooking. When the waitress suggests I try vatapa paraiba (£12.50), a Bahian creamy purée of fish, prawns, nuts, dried shrimp and coconut milk from her native north-eastern Brazil, her face goes all soft and her eyes wistful. That's nice, but the vatapa isn't.
Whether it is vatapa I don't like, or just this particular one, I don't know, but it is a white plate of greyish gloopy goo that only a Bahian could love, served with a side dish of rice. You fork up the rice and dip it into the pale, pappy paste. In trying to give you a cultural reference point, I can only come up with tuna mornay and chicken à la king combined in a blender. My apologies to all Bahians, but it leaves me a desperate desire for something to sink my teeth into.
I knew I shouldn't have said that. The churrascos platter of barbecued picanha (garlicky beef), lamb steak and chunky linguicha pork sausage (£12.50) is just awful. The rare picanha is tough and tooth-resistant and tastes of cheap meat, the lamb is over-cooked and tastes of compacted cardboard. The sausage is great - spicy, well-made and real - but it is only a stub. Also on the plate is a moulded mound of revolting diced potato and carrot in mayo, and sludgy, grilled vegetables formed into a ball.
There is no sign of the promised farofa, a stuffing-like mixture made with toasted manioc flour, which may or may not be a bad thing.
Dessert is classic Camden Town: a slice of plantain cake (£3.50) that is dry and dull, served with cold stewed fruit and a scoop of banana ice-cream.
In keeping with the general tone of the evening, the wine list of Chilean, Argentinian and Californian labels is disappointing. Not because it is cheap, but because of the direct correlation of cheapness - lack of quality. A bottle of Trivento Argentinian Sangiovese 2001 (£16) feels stewy and flabby.
There is little point skewering the inept service, listing the forgotten orders and the general lack of quality or care. Made in Brasil is just not very good. And Camden Town has yet another anonymous, look-alike, mediocre, so-called ethnic restaurant. At least it has found the perfect site.
8 Made in Brasil 12 Inverness Street, London NW1, tel: 020 7482 0777. Open Monday to Sunday for lunch and dinner. Around £70 for two including wine and service.
Scores 1-9 stay home and cook 10-11 needs help 12 ok 13 pleasant enough 14 good 15 very good 16 capable of greatness 17 special, can't wait to go back 18 highly honourable 19 unique and memorable 20 as good as it gets
Second helpings: Other Brazilian restaurants
Las Iguanas 13 Belvoir Street, Leicester, tel: 0116 285 9180 Iguanas must be the rabbits of Brazil - there are now six across Britain. The formula is infectious: a modern space, loud salsa and non-stop caipirinhas made with Las Iguanas's own cachaca, brewed near Rio. The menu runs like a stunned lizard, from Mexican nachos and fajitas to Brazilian swordfish moqueca and ribeye in an Argentinian churrasco rub.
Bocanova 90 Colston Street, Bristol, tel: 0117 929 1538 Bocanova runs to a heady beat, with live music on Wednesdays. Owner chef Humberto Benevenuto cooks a Brazilian-Mediterranean mix, running from a traditional Brazilian feijoada of black beans, chorizo and pancetta to seared tuna with prawns and coconut cream, and marinated chicken wings with mint couscous salad.
Terra Brasil 36 Chalton Street, London NW1, tel: 020 7388 6554 This buzzy lunchtime caff is a great favourite with the local ex-pat community. A small but authentic selection of Brazilian specialties are on offer, including chicken and salt-cod balls, cod moqueca, the mighty feijoada, passion fruit mousse, and of course, Brazil's idea of water: the mighty caipirinha.
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