You always remember your first — your first kiss, first love, first car. These experiences hold the power to broaden your horizons or change your sense of self.
It may not be a surprise that many of my firsts revolve around food. My first date with the man who is now my husband was at the diminutive Sergio's in University Circle (now home to Jonathon Sawyer's Trentina). I had beef with button mushrooms. He had pistachio-crusted chicken.
For the next few years, we often returned to Sergio Abramof's restaurant. Even on our meager college budget, we celebrated nearly every special occasion there — except once, when he took me to Sarava, the Brazilian chef's restaurant in Shaker Square.
At Sarava, I first experienced feijoada, a classic Brazilian stew made with black beans, pork, beef, tomatoes, spices and a generous dose of salt. I still remember the rich, smoky bits of sausage, how the word fehj-WAH-dah felt strange and unfamiliar in my mouth, and the compulsion to keep taking bites from the large clay pot long after I was full.
I credit that particular dish, more than any other, with nourishing my love of culinary exploration. But Sarava closed nearly three years ago, and I haven't had feijoada since.
Then in May, Gustavo Nogueria opened Batuqui with fiancee Carla Batista in the former Bon Vivant space on Larchmere Boulevard, a tiny Victorian home sandwiched between Larchmere's antique shops. I tucked into a corner table and scanned the menu for feijoada, when a warm tribute to Abramof, who died suddenly in 2012, caught my eye.
"We were good friends," says Nogueria, who worked for Abramof for nearly four years.
Nogueria, 34, came to Cleveland about 12 years ago to help open Brasa Grill, the Brazilian churrascaria steakhouse in the Warehouse District. After long stints at Brasa and Sarava, he took a break from cooking to operate a small trucking company before returning to the kitchen to bring authentic Brazilian food back to the region.
"My family has a restaurant in Brazil," he says. "I grew up helping my mom in the kitchen."
The same goes for Batista. So their restaurant mixes traditional food from his home state of Minas Gerais in southeast Brazil and her home state of Bahia in the northeast.
"We don't have nothing close to real Brazilian food," says Nogueria. "We're the first one. Everybody [is] happy. I'm happy too."
It's hard not to feel good in Batuqui's cozy dining room, filled with colorful art, South American plant life and the aromas from sizzling plates passing through the small space.
Although service can be disorganized and scattershot on busy nights, it doesn't lack for warmth. And once the food hits the table, most diners forget to mind it. Instead, it begins to feel like a hectic holiday dinner at a relative's home.
That vibe was a reason Nogueria picked the space. "The feeling [was] like ... our house," says Nogueria. "We always have a big Brazilian community, always feeling like a party."
In fact, Cleveland has a tight-knit Brazilian community. The staff considers Cleveland Indians catcher Yan Gomes a friend.
On one of my visits to the 38-seat restaurant, Cleveland Cavaliers forward Anderson Varejao squeezed his 6-foot-11 frame into the tiny kitchen — which typically fits, at best, two line cooks and one server — to embrace Nogueria and Batista. A stream of Portuguese erupted from the kitchen. When Varejao stepped out once more, he pulled a few tables together for his party as steaming family-style dishes began to flow from the kitchen almost immediately. It felt as if we had crashed a family dinner.
Dishes on the versatile menu are listed in Portuguese with translations and special dietary considerations (gluten-free diners will find plenty of options here, for instance) printed below.
A simple starter of linguica with mandioca frita ($9), or garlicky Brazilian sausage and fried yuca, is a standout with crispy, bite-sized slices of pork sausage and home fry-like diced yuca to mellow out the garlic. Rustic and hearty, the dish fits with Batuqui's homespun feel.
While this is not a place for fussy presentations, delicate emulsions and precious finishing oils, I would have welcomed an accompanying sauce — a missing element I noted throughout the meal. Likewise, five fresh, almost creamy bolinho de bacalhau ($8), or cod fish croquettes, were brightened by a squeeze of lime but wanted for something like an herbal dipping sauce.
It's hard not to get tunnel vision in a Brazilian restaurant, as the country is known for its love of steak and other red meats.
"People think steakhouse, but Brazil has so much more to offer," insists Batista.
That's not to say that the tri-cut steak ($26) isn't a worthwhile offering. Served on an iron sizzler platter with tomato relish, white rice and farofa — Brazil's alternative to bread, the small pile of toasted, course-ground yuca flour is a mealtime staple. Considerably tougher and more fatty than standard steakhouse cuts such as sirloin or tenderloin, tri-tip offers a bolder flavor, heightened by a sprinkle of sea salt and the layer of caramelized crunch created by the hot plate.
Fish is another Brazilian standard, and a seared salmon ($21) topped with a puzzling but delicious passion fruit, honey and caper sauce did not disappoint. Ask for the chef's recommendation of sides (the dish includes two), and you're likely to get melt-in-your-mouth fried spinach and smooth, slightly tangy whipped potatoes.
Weekend specials often include homey platters such as chicken stroganoff and creative offerings such as shrimp and pumpkin stew served in a pumpkin.
But if you order one thing at Batuqui, I recommend the feijoada ($20).
"It originated with the slaves from Africa when they were taken to Brazil by the Portuguese colonizers," explains manager Bruna Pinto, who is also from Minas Gerais, Brazil. "The owners of the farms, they would throw away the pieces of the pork that they didn't want anymore, so the slaves would cure that meat, season with whatever they had from their garden, and that's how feijoada was born."
Because I'm already familiar with the classic dish, I took a chance on Batuqui's vegetarian feijoada, which substitutes a smoked tofu sausage from the West Side Market.
Starchy, rich black beans, accompanied by ethereal fried spinach, bright tomato relish, white rice and farofa: It was everything I remembered — so much so that I sent the dish back to the kitchen, believing I had received the nonvegetarian version.
As with my first encounter with feijoada, I ate long past full and still craved more. I looked across the table at my husband, uncharacteristically struck silent by his own dish. We'll be back many, many times again.
When You Go: Batuqui, 12706 Larchmere Blvd., Cleveland, 216-801-0227, batuquicleveland.com, Tue-Thu 4-10 p.m., Fri and Sat 4-10:30 p.m., Sun 2-9 p.m.
try this: Say goodbye to french fries and ola to fried yuca. Also known as cassava or manioc, this starchy root vegetable sits somewhere between a white potato and sweet potato. Toothy, a little sweet and dead crispy, the yuca frites ($4) at Batuqui have a thirsty texture that sucks up sauce; we like it with a dish of tomato vinaigrette.
good to know: Sip half-price bottles of wine Wednesdays 4-10 p.m. A variety of bottles hailing primarily from Spain, Italy, California and Argentina make up the list here. Try the malbec from Argentinian vintner Perlita, specially priced at $16.
The opening of Batuqui has added a considerable amount of flavor to Larchmere, particularly with its standout feijoada dish. "It's a very complex dish. It takes about five or six hours to make it," says Batuqui manager Bruna Pinto. "Basically, it's black beans with different cuts of pork, and all of the pork is smoked."
We asked for a how-to on nailing the restaurant's signature dish, and while the basic recipe is no secret, the particulars at Batuqui are. "Everybody has their own style, their own secrets and ways of doing it," Pinto explains.
If you want the real deal, you'll have to snag a seat in the restaurant's tiny Victorian dining room. But if you're among the do-it-yourself crowd, try this quick-cooking version of feijoada, which will save you days of prep and hours in front of a stove. It's great comfort food for the cold months, even if it pales in comparison to Batuqui's own secret recipe.