Getting a Brazilian in London used to mean undergoing a ruthless and intimate form of hair removal. Then it referred to transfers of fleet-footed Latin American footballers. Now it means going out to dinner.
The wave of recent fashionable South American openings includes Fitzrovia's Boteca Carioca, Kensington's Cubano La Bodeguita del Medio, and the Battersea branch of Argentinian bar and grill Santa Maria del Buen Ayre. Now, after long delays and a reported investment of £5m, London's biggest, most ambitious Brazilian restaurant is at last open for business, on the site of Oliver Peyton's Isola.
The Fitzcarraldo in question is David Ponté, former co-owner, with Mourad Mazouz, of the madly Moroccan Momo in Heddon Street. Born in Brazil, Ponté has rather bravely made it his mission to recreate the buzzy Brazilian bar scene in uptown Knightsbridge. Just about everything (apart from English head chef Darryl Healey) comes from Brazil. The ceiling is lined with narrow Brazilian tree trunks, the lights are Brazilian street lights, and the chairs are antique Brazilian jacaranda upholstered with soft hide. Woop-woop go the internal sirens. Rainforest? Air miles? Carbon footprints? Ponté's team has had to issue urgent press statements "for the avoidance of doubt", assuring us that all Brazilian ingredients and furniture are shipped and not air-freighted, and the wood used in the floor and ceiling came from reclaimed stocks of cinnamon and iron wood.
After all that, it's the human resources that seem unsustainable. There are four different people on the door when I arrive. They all go into a huddle when I want a pre-dinner drink at the upstairs bar, muttering about being late for my table. But a caipirinha awaits, smoothly prepared by a very caring bartender using top-grade cachaça, the white Brazilian rum-like spirit made from sugar cane. The bar itself feels more friendly coffee chain than sexy cocktail bar, with its low-line communal table, racks of magazines and (Brazilian) café tables and chairs. I barely have time to learn how to pronounce cachaça properly (ca'chassa) before a minder arrives to escort me down the onyx stairway to the dining-room below. This rigid enforcement of rules and times doesn't feel very relaxed or Brazilian.
Wood-grained and softly glowing, with big-hair flower arrangements, white-clothed tables and a dramatically backlit tropical-foliaged bar, the room would suit a sedate upmarket hotel. The music is muted (Brazil! Music! Muted!) and everyone speaks in hushed, low tones.
The menu, of course, is Brazilian, which is to say bits and bobs of Indian, African, Portuguese, German, Lebanese and Caribbean influences. Some of the food has a vaguely international feel, such as sea bass carpaccio with baby leaves and vanilla vinaigrette (£8.50). The fish itself is glistening with freshness, punched up nicely with tangy caperberries and frisky chilli slices. Tiger prawns with pumpkin, chilli and coconut (£9.50) is less focused. Nothing sings in a cacophonic collection of crisp lotus-root slices, steamy pumpkin, bland prawns and a creamy/oily sauce.
Main courses are more to the point. Feijoadinha (£16), Brazil's pork-and-beans answer to cassoulet, is a terrific dish, or rather, dishes. The first is a large bowl of nicely gloopy black-bean stew plumped up with smoky pork, sausage, dried beef and kale. The second is a slab of roasted pork loin with crisp crackling, served with rice, and the third, a small bowl of the ubiquitous starchy farofa (toasted cassava meal) for sprinkling - in case you're still hungry. At the next table, a super-skinny Brazilian teenager tries in vain to stop her parents diving their spoons into her beans. She can relax, there is enough for four.
The picanha (£21), a thick strip of succulent rump steak from Brazil, is ruthlessly and expensively trimmed, with a line of fat running evenly down one side, and a deep, lasting flavour. Accompanying cassava fries are under-seasoned and rather tasteless.
An eager and obliging sommelier suggests a Quinta de Seival Castas Portuguese 2004 (£31), a crisp, deep, serious red blended from Portuguese grape varieties by the Brazilian winemaker Miolo.
Desserts are pretty show-offs, like a perfectly formed pyramid of chocolate, coffee and doce de leite (milky caramel) served with grand chocolate furls and a scoop of paçoca (soft nut toffee) ice cream (£7). Highly crafted puds like this rarely taste of anything except technique, but this one has real flavour lurking in the artifice.
The cooking: more hit than miss. The service: uneven but sweet-natured. Atmosphere: oddly corporate. What's missing: fire in the belly, sizzle, spontaneity, and the inner beat of the samba.
This is Brazilian in the mild-mannered international style, its hot blood made sluggish as if sedated by the dark British winter. It's still good, but it feels too shaped by being in Britain, too repressed and polite. Pity. I wanted to be transported to Brazil, not stuck in SW1.
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
Mocotó 145 Knightsbridge, London SW1, tel: 020 7225 2300 Lunch and dinner Monday to Saturday.
Around £125 for two with wine and service.
Second helpings: More Brazilians
Meet Brazilian 66 Bold Street, Liverpool, tel: 0151 707 6507 This relative of Liverpool's Meet Argentinian opened late last year, serving up feijoada, churrasco (mixed grill) and moqueca swordfish stew.
Bocanova 90 Colston Street, Bristol, tel: 0117 929 1538 In order to please the good burghers of Bristol, chef Humberto Benevenuto fuses the flavours of Brazil with those of the Mediterranean, but the feijoada is always on.
Boteco Carioca 93 Charlotte Street, London W1, tel: 020 7637 0050 Fitzrovia's Charlotte Street had one of everything except a Brazilian restaurant until this lively bar/restaurant opened last year. Expertly made caipirinhas and hearty, home-style cooking draw a lively expat crowd.
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