To Rio with Love: Sergio's Sarava

Sergio's Sarava

Can’t swing a trip to Rio de Janeiro, the world’s most fun-loving city? Don’t despair. You can sample Brazil’s exotic food and drink, bask in the joie de vivre for which Cariocas are famed, and let the music of Rio carry you away. Just merengue into Saravá, chef Sergio Abramof’s Brazilian-themed restaurant in Shaker Square.

It’ll probably take just one trip to hook you. The décor is striking. The wait staff is efficient and friendly without ever becoming a pain. The food is sensational, and the drinks provide a luscious taste of the tropics. A word about the name: Saravá is one of those multipurpose expressions, like aloha, ciao or shalom, that could mean hello, goodbye, good luck, etc.

Abramof is no stranger to Cleveland foodies. A native of Brazil, he trained extensively in Italy. Next came a 14-year stint as executive chef in Giovanni’s award-winning kitchen. In 1995 he launched his first independent venture, Sergio’s in University Circle. the limited space at Sergio’s — just 50 seats — left many fans clamoring for a bigger place. They got their wish in late 2005 when Sergio took a giant step by adding Saravá’s 200 seats to his growing restaurant empire.

This year Saravá’s patio boosts the total by an additional 100 seats. The original Sergio’s in University Circle, its menu refocused on Mediterranean cuisine and seafood, continues to pack ’em in.

Abramof describes his operation as a family affair. “My wife, Susan, and I are really partners in running the business and together supervised all aspects of the restaurant’s design and development of the menu. Our son even worked out the child’s menu. That’s why our child’s menu goes beyond chicken fingers and hot dogs. He chose items from our regular adult menu that he likes, like churrasco [barbecued beef on skewers over rice] and garlicky shrimp. Some of it may sound a bit sophisticated, but kids really seem to like it.” Some neighborhood. Some kids!

Step out of the calm reserve of Shaker Square’s Georgian elegance, and you’re immediately transported. Don’t look for a jungle of potted palms and screaming cockatoos. Abramof would never stoop to clichés. You may have expected a 200-seat restaurant to wow with overwhelming space. Team Abramof chose instead to beguile with intimacy. They divided the restaurant into a number of cozy spaces, each with its own microclimate: There are quiet rooms, noisy rooms, rooms that throb with Brazilian music, rooms that buzz with friendly table-to-table conversation.

Seating is comfortable and stylish; choose glove-soft leather banquettes or ultracontemporary chairs of dark (nearly ebony) wood and brushed stainless steel. Contemporary paintings heavy on red-orange and black, polished tree trunks and an ebony pergola stamp each of the various dining spaces with a distinct personality.

The Abramofs have divided their menu into several categories, each with its own personality as well, each highlighting a different facet of the kitchen’s skills. “Street plates” prove how well the kitchen does highly flavored finger food. These small portions, like tapas, are inspired by the best of the food from street vendors around the world.

The limited appetizer section offer portions a little larger, but equally delicious. All the small plates and appetizers we tried are intensely flavored, and many are large enough for sharing.

Next come salads, pastas, pizzas and an extensive raw bar. Clearly this is a restaurant that puts heavy emphasis on grazing. You may opt to make a meal of a sampling of small plates. Good idea. Or choose small plates as appetizers for a multicourse meal. Trouble is, everything sounds so good, you could overorder and be stuffed before your entrée arrives (bad idea), or too sated to order dessert (worse idea).

Street plates could be as simple as a bowl of salted cashews ($2.95) or as substantial as Saravá burgers ($5.50), two thin patties with caramelized onions, roasted peppers and chips. Among our absolute favorites is fried smelt tempura ($5.50). These tiny freshwater fish were once a staple on Cleveland menus. They’ve pretty much disappeared now, but Saravá earns a place among the elect for bringing them back. The flavorful fish are decapitated, dipped in an airy tempura batter and fried crisp. Tails are left on to make for dainty dining, and chili dipping sauce provides a perfect complement. Another winner is crisp artichoke fritters served with a richly flavored lemon-thyme mayonnaise ($4.95).

Saravá earns praise for its version of a New England-style clam roll ($5.50). Some may remember the old Howard Johnson’s motto, “Fried clams, sweet as a nut.” Those clams were usually fished out of the freezer after a lengthy stay, then given a too brief sojourn in the fryer, from which they emerged doughy and greasy. You’ll find none of that here. At Saravá, the clams are indeed sweet as a nut. They’re also tender, crisp and fresh with the flavor of the sea, served in a New England-style split-top bun atop a nest of shredded lettuce with a zingy daub of homemade tartar sauce. Hyannis, anyone?

Salads include the caju, a crisp assemblage of baby greens, fried wonton skins and toasted cashews ($6.95), and the Copacabana salad of baby greens topped with hearts of palm, onion and mangos, with a drizzle of seasoned rice vinegar ($8.95). Pastas reflect the influence of Abramof’s years of apprenticeship in Italy. Perciatelli (a tube pasta) is dressed in a luscious veal Bolognese sauce, topped with sweet peas and generous curls of Parmesan ($17).

Entreés include some authentically Brazilian dishes and others that seem to be standard fare passing as Brazilian. Glad to report, even the “Latins from Manhattan” are full of flavor and yield surprises.

Feijoada ($18.95) is practically the national dish of Brazil. It’s a hearty stew of black beans, rice, linguiça sausage, bacon, ham and bits of pork loin. Brazilians are rumored to regard the dish as being too rich to eat any day but Saturday — any other day would leave you with a next-day food hangover too stupefying to permit a full day’s work. It is a luscious concoction, velvety, porky and filling. To provide some variety for the palate, Saravá’s feijoada comes with a relish of fresh tomatoes, a lime vinaigrette and cleansing slices of fresh orange.

Xim-xim ($22.50) is a dish with roots in West Africa. Chicken and shrimp are browned in palm oil, then slow-braised in coconut milk with peppers, tomatoes and carrots. Fully cooked, the dish gets a heavy dose of pepper and a sprinkle of roasted peanuts.

Pan-roasted Key lime chicken ($22.50), beautifully browned, is served on a bed of Brazilian rice with roasted plantains that provide just the right touch of sweetness. The delicious lime-flavored glaze penetrates deep into the moist, tender, free-range meat to lend a satisfying citrus note. The lightly sautéed string beans on the side were done to a turn, left with just enough satisfying crunch.

A special of plancha-grilled miso salmon ($26.95) ventures far from Brazil with sensational results. The miso sauce lends big flavor to the super-fresh, super-moist fish, while yielding a tasty, deeply colored crust. The fish is finished with the spice and citrus of a ginger butter and accompanied by tender sautéed asparagus.

Brazilian-style bouillabaisse ($24.50) simmers a rich harvest from the sea including mussels, littleneck clams, shrimp and chunks of fresh fish in a tomato broth that’s richly herbed and bursting with flavor. The stew is served on a bed of rice, but save a chunk of the restaurant’s excellent bread for dipping.

Desserts, most about $6.50, all house-made, are simply too good to miss. The best seller is Sergio’s coconut butter cake. It starts with a rich but not too sweet butter cake, topped with a crunchy layer of coconut cream, caramelized sugar and toasted coconut. Choose either freshly whipped cream or a pour of crème Anglaise as a topping. The chef tells us he’s been flooded with requests for the recipe from national magazines, out-of-town newspapers and fans who’d like to try it at home. The answer is always a polite no.

Chocoholics would do well with the chocolate terrine. It’s a slab of something born in the twilight zone between cake and candy. Looking for something a little lighter? Try a medley of tropical fruits in a creamy zabaglione flavored with passion fruit.

Sergio’s Saravá, 13225 Shaker Square (northeast quadrant), (216) 295-1200. Hours: Mon - Thu 5 - 10 p.m.; Fri and Sat 5 p.m. - midnight; Sun 5 - 9 p.m. Dining room and restrooms are all on the ground floor. Valet parking is $5. Reservations recommended. All major credit cards accepted.

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