By David Minsky
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These days, unfortunately, South Florida is known as much for its strip malls as its palm trees. But let's face it: While some of us bemoan these street-side monstrosities, we'd be hard-pressed to give up the convenience of one-stop shopping and go traipsing all over town in search of, say, a video, a cup of coffee, and a dry cleaner.
Convenience makes even more sense when it comes to a night out. After all, who wants to start off the evening in a bar watching a Heat game, then get in the car after the game's over and drive to a restaurant, then get back in the car and search for a nightclub to dance off dinner? Especially when you get all of that in a place like Boteco?
The four-month-old Brazilian restaurant on North Federal Highway in Fort Lauderdale offers it all: food, drink, dance, TV, and live music. It even sells tickets to the Brazilian national team's upcoming soccer matches at the Orange Bowl. Located at one end of the restaurant, the bar is the best place to watch highlights from old games and relax with a Rio Cristal, the Brazilian beer launched last year in the United States. (Don't bother asking for anything tastier; the rest of the beer selection is a domestic nightmare.) We also sipped a caipirinha, a mixed drink made from lime juice and cachaça, a Brazilian rum. Just one was strong enough to send us to the adjoining rustic dining room in search of something to counter its effect.
With its beamed ceilings and brick accents, the dining room is picturesque. Wooden credenzas are stocked with crockery, copper pots and pans, and dried-flower arrangements. Candles stuck in empty liquor bottles anchor white tablecloths to the wooden tables. On the surface it all looks very charming, hearthlike. The overworked air conditioning, however, kind of ruins the effect. When we complained about the meat-freezer temperatures, we were told that, later in the evening, enough bodies pack the place to offset the chill. Translation: Shiver, or get up and boogie down on the dance floor, which is nestled in a corner of the L-shaped dining room.
No one really needed any persuading. Although it was only 8 p.m. when we arrived for dinner, a talented duo, playing Brazilian-influenced folk and rock tunes, was already on stage. (After 10 p.m. the restaurant is turned into a club, and a cover is charged.) The patrons -- like the staff, largely Portuguese-speaking -- were pretty much chair-dancing, anxious for the disco lights to be turned on. Brazilians are experts at combining their passions -- food, drink, soccer, and samba -- and Boteco, which means "gathering place," reflects that sensibility. In the end we were somewhat grateful for the distractions, because the mostly far-too-salty fare was the weakest ingredient in this party mix.
I'm always intrigued by Brazilian dishes, which are diverse melds of Portuguese, native South American, and African influences. Carne seca, for example, the first appetizer on Boteco's menu, is Portuguese in origin. The salted, sun-dried beef originated during the trade-route days, when curing was considered a means of preservation and settlers longed for this familiar fare from back home. We didn't care for Boteco's preparation: slices of beef reconstituted and sauteed with onions, green peppers, and tomatoes. The vegetables countered the salt (most of which had been soaked out), but the beef was fatty and tough.
Another hot starter, a square of provolone cheese, was an improvement. Sprinkled with oregano and grilled, the aged cheese was lined with golden brown stripes on the outside; inside it was deliciously soft. It tasted best on crusty Portuguese rolls. A South American-influenced appetizer, tender hearts of palm stacked on mixed greens and dressed with a light vinaigrette, was a terrific contrast, in terms of both texture and temperature.
Centuries ago African flavors were one of Brazil's most significant imports. Beans, root vegetables, and stewed meats otherwise might not have made their ways into European kitchens, where many slaves were forced to work. (While native Indian tribes had been using the same ingredients for some time, settlers had rejected them.) Thus, black beans play a role in almost every course, starting with soup. Unfortunately Boteco's caldo de feijao, or black bean soup, was more like a broth, a too-salty, too-thin puree of the legumes. For a heartier bean experience, the Brazilian national dish, feijoada completa -- a rich casserole of beans cooked with pork loin, pork shoulder, sausage, bacon, and dried beef -- is available for lunch and dinner.
Feijoada is always a treat, but Boteco's main courses sounded interesting enough to forgo the familiar option for something like lombo a Boteco, which is pork loin served with rice, tutu beans, collard greens, and vinaigrette sauce. A grave disappointment, the two lean pork steaks were so tough and salty, they rivaled the dried beef. Of course we could have made a meal out of the buttered white rice and tutu beans, a baked puree of black beans. The shredded collard greens and the vinaigrette sauce, really a salsa of onions, tomatoes, and green peppers, were also well prepared.
Medalhao mignon a Boteco, or filet mignon, provided us with another briny overdose. The accompanying piamonteza rice, Parmesan-rich and creamy like risotto, was excellent. And the main dish, the grilled filet wrapped with bacon, was a thick, juicy, pleasantly musky hunk of beef. But a Madeira sauce strangled the meat with salt.
A similar wine sauce, laden with sliced mushrooms, absolutely ruined the frango Ipanema, or sauteed chicken breast. The boneless, breaded poultry medallions were as tender as a love song, but the excess salt made our tongues shrivel like slugs. At one point we asked the busboy simply to leave us his pitcher of water. My guest was happy, too, that her rice was served on a separate plate.
Coconut milk is always a soothing balm, and we thought the camarao a baiana, or stewed shrimp, actually helped to quench our thirst. The half-dozen shrimp were fresh and tightly curled in their flavorful bath of palm oil, coconut milk, tomatoes, onions, and green peppers. Creamy without being heavy, the stew, a trademark of the northeastern Bahian region of Brazil, was well matched by the fragrant, buttery white rice.
E la carte side dishes include wonderfully crunchy, fried whole bananas, which could substitute as a dessert. More traditional sweets like pudim (flan) and quindim (coconut custard) were agreeable, if not outstanding. A dish of passion fruit mousse was the most unusual of the desserts, the whipped, airy pudding appropriately tangy with the tropical fruit.
Boteco is a lively, well-run restaurant. Service was prompt and cheerful, and the fare undeniably authentic. I'd gladly return on one condition: The kitchen staff throws out its saltshaker or at least uses it less often. Salt helped preserve Brazil's culinary history, but here in Fort Lauderdale, it tends to erode.
Boteco. 4140 N. Federal Hwy., Fort Lauderdale, 954-566-3190. Lunch and dinner daily from noon to midnight; Fri. and Sat. until 2 a.m.
Grilled provolone with oregano
Hearts of palm salad
Camarao a baiana
Medalhao mignon a Boteco
Passion fruit mousse