High on my list of desert-island discs is the Getz/Gilberto classic that introduced me to Antonio Carlos Jobim and "The Girl From Ipanema." And high on my list of favored eats are grilled meats flagrantly salted and edged with char. Given those predilections, how could I possibly dislike Ipanema Brazilian Grill? After all, this newcomer is home to the hot trend in all-you-can-eateries — the churrascaria rodizio — an invitation to an endless supply of grilled meats complete with a samba-fueled soundtrack.
Well, first there was the hope (dashed!) that Ipanema's owner, Marco Casas Beaux, would reinvent the Wolfgang Puck Café as something more physically appealing. Yet it continues to resemble a stylish cafeteria. Casas Beaux, the man behind Seattle's Argentinean steakhouse Buenos Aires Grill, has rearranged rather than redesigned this sprawling space atop Harbor Steps.
Puck's familiar mosaic tiles still frame the exhibition kitchen, which sits just inside the entranceway. Here you may be greeted — as I was, twice — by an interesting juxtaposition: a skinny sullen hostess and ribs of Flintstonian proportion. Those ribs, roasting over a pit just behind the hostess-stand, are only for show. That said, they're the perfect "scarecrow" for those averse to meat-eating.
At Ipanema, hunks of meat (various cuts of beef, mainly) as well as skewers of oversalted shrimp, dry chunks of mahi-mahi, mild pork sausages, plump chicken drumsticks, bacon-wrapped turkey, cinnamon-spiced pineapple and cobs of corn — among other offerings — rotate in stainless-steel Brazilian barbecues. This parade of grilled foods is served tableside by roving "passadores," each wielding a sword of impaled edibles and a broad sharp knife.
Meats are sliced before your eyes and with your help: The small tongs at each place-setting are for gripping meaty morsels carved from whole roasts — something you may or may not be told. In four visits I found that this (mostly Brazilian) crew has professional profiles that run from friendly and informative to friendly and ill-informed to slow and distracted.
Until asked, we were not told what was what among the hot side dishes unceremoniously plopped on our table to be shared family-style. These include "Brazilian" rice (dry, short-grained and flavorless), farofa (cassava flour sautéed with bits of eggs and pork), banana frita (sweet, dessert-worthy fried bananas) and feijão rico (black beans stewed with pork).Service is even more scattered in the bar, formerly buried in back, now residing in front where it draws happy-hour revelers. The bar adjoins a small lounge area whose street-front windows open onto First Avenue. Here you may graze your way through a bar menu (half-price weekdays from 4 to 7 p.m.).
I passed a not-so-happy hour sampling garlic shrimp with coconut mayonnaise when I'd ordered shrimp in coconut tempura with piri-piri aioli ($8.95/$4.48 happy hour). I shared a couple of empadas (savory pastries filled with bits of desiccated chicken and hearths (sic) of palm, $6.95/$3.50) and a generous mix of grilled sliced meats ($6.95/$3.95) that included winners (juicy pepper steak) and losers (dry pork loin). Much better was the fabulous bauru sandwich ($8.95/$4.50), a pliant roll enveloping beef tenderloin, corn kernels, onion and tomato. With this came finger-licking garlic-and-herb-strewn fries available a la carte ($3.95).
Meantime, I sipped a Garota de Ipanema, a refreshing sangrialike cocktail made with blood oranges and Brazilian sugarcane liquor ($7.50), and watched as potential patrons arrived and were led to seats in the dining room only to exit shortly thereafter. Perhaps they were put off by the idea of a $34.95-per-person barbecue-and-cold buffet dinner.
During a weekday rodizio lunch ($24.95), two busloads of seniors flooded the room, usurped service and decimated the "mesa de frios" — the cold buffet available a la carte at lunch ($12.95) and dinner ($16.95). "Where's the shrimp? We need more shrimp!" shouted one aficionado, elbowing her way through the buffet then holding up the line till the shrimp reappeared as I stood waiting, and waiting.
As at any buffet, one should approach armed with an open mind and keen eye. I'd steer away from the supermarket salad-bar offerings, which include salad greens, cheap deli meats and cheeses, tricolore pasta salad and marinated mushrooms. Better to turn your attention to grilled fresh vegetables or a salsa-styled salad of fresh pineapple, tomato, cilantro and chili peppers. Better yet, do as the shrimp lady did and go for the seafood: bacalao (salt cod) with potatoes and boiled egg, steamed and chilled mussels, or a refreshing seafood salad with bites of shrimp and octopus.
Bad acoustics added to my great discomfort. On a busy Saturday night, the noise level was atrocious to begin with thanks to hard surfaces, a pumped-up sound system and a large party seated mid-room. But it reached body-twitching proportion when a trio of musicians segued from "The Girl From You-Know-Where" to a rousing rendition of "Brazil."
As vocals turned to a percussive instrumental, the trio stepped down from their post in the bar to roam the dining room in a conga line. The incessant sound of their shrill whistle did not, in this context, make me think "Carnival!" But it did cement my feelings about this grill from Ipanema: "When I pass it, each time I pass I'll go 'Eh.' "
Nancy Leson: 206-464-8838 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
More columns at www.seattletimes.com/nancyleson.
1225 First Ave., Seattle; 206-957-8444
Reservations: parties of six or more only.
Hours: lunch 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Mondays-Fridays, dinner 5-11 p.m. Sundays-Fridays, 11:30 a.m.-11:30 p.m. Saturdays, happy hour 4-7 p.m. Mondays-Fridays. Summer hours begin May 16: 11:30 a.m.-11:30 p.m. daily.
Prices: starters: $3.95-$8.95; rodizio: $24.95 lunch/$34.95 dinner; menu executive (lunch only): choice of protein plus unlimited salad bar, $14.95; mesa de frios: $12.95 lunch/$16.95 dinner; bar menu: $4.95-$8.95.
Wine list: South America is well-represented on this reasonably priced list.
Sound: very loud when it's busy; live music on weekends.
Parking: valet from 6 p.m. Fridays- Saturdays; $7.
Who should go: carnivorous tourists.
Full bar / credit cards: AE, MC, V / no obstacles to access / smoking in bar and lounge.