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Samba on Down to Cafe Connection

Cafe Connection, 9171 Wilshire Blvd., Suite A, Beverly Hills. (213) 271-9545. Brazilian Nights, Thursday, Friday and Saturday, 6:30 p.m.-1 a.m.

Brazil, with all its hectic industrialization, is still a land of parrots and macaws in the garden, lush tropical fruits at breakfast and a spirit of carnival that seems enshrined in every Brazilian soul. When I heard that this Brazilian spirit was alive and well every weekend in, of all places, a plush Beverly Hills coffee shop, I hurried over to investigate.

About a year ago, Brazilian-born Gustavo Li began inviting a few friends to his all-American cafe. After hours, he’d cook up occasional Brazilian dinners to, as he says, soothe his friends’ saudade --a Portuguese term that describes pangs of nostalgia. The dinners were so successful Li decided to invite the public, and now, three nights a week his Cafe Connection presents “Brazilian nights.”

For fans of Brazilian food, this was great news. Even though Brazilian music has enjoyed a recent resurgence in Los Angeles, Brazilian food is still scarce. (The only other place I know that serves it is the tiny Zilda’s Brazilian Delicacies on National Boulevard in West Los Angeles.)

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But a craving for good Brazilian cooking is only one reason these evenings are so popular. A tiny combo throbs out mellifluous sambas. Friends greet one another with a kiss on each cheek. Tables are pushed together. There is a sybaritic mood and it’s contagious.

An exotic mix of faces makes up this stylish crowd--the same cultural blend that has shaped Brazil’s diverse cooking. Chef Li’s Rio style displays the cosmopolitan side of Brazilian food, with its European and even Middle Eastern influences. But cozinha Bahiana , the Afro-Portuguese dishes of Bahia on the northeast coast, are what many Brazilians consider “typical.” And Li prepares a few of these, too.

Feijoada , for example, Brazil’s national dish--a hefty stew of black beans, sausages and smoky meats--arrives in a genteel presentation. The rice comes molded into a mound surrounded by bright green, crisply fried collard leaves. A fried banana is creamy inside its think coating of crumbs. The other traditional accompaniments, slices of orange and cassava meal, are arranged around the plate.

Another Bahian dish, camarao a Bahiana --giant shrimp in a rich coconut milk sauce--is tinted slightly orange with dende oil. Bahian cooks make lavish use of this voluptuous oil, which is extracted from the nuts of African oil palms. The African slaves who once ran the kitchens of Brazilian sugar plantations introduced the oil to the Portuguese along with cassava, bananas, peanuts and tiny, hot malaqueta peppers.

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The slave cooks used Portuguese ingredients in their dishes, too, as Li does in his traditional bacalhoada : Dried codfish is softened by a soaking that makes its texture almost meaty. A huge portion comes sauced with the same rich coconut milk mixture as camarao a Bahiana and accompanied by steamed potatoes, rice and a little mound of sauteed collard greens.

When we arrived at 7:30 one Friday evening, the cafe was extremely quiet. Far back in a corner, a television flashed a video of tourists boating up the Amazon. Brazilian magazines were neatly stacked by the coffee bar. And the room’s mirrored walls reflected a lone couple dining at one of the elegant rose marble and brass tables. A few more diners drifted in. Then at 9, as if by invitation, customers suddenly filled the room to capacity.

We investigated the drinks, which include an unusually good Brazilian beer, caipirinha made from sugar cane juice, and guarana , the national soda that gets its flavor from a tropical berry. As we drank we listened to a Brazilian girl at the next table as she described all the appetizers on the menu for her friends. On her glowing recommendation, I ordered bolinhos de bacalhau --codfish croquettes. The little balls of fish and potato were deep-fried but light and intensely savory. Pastel de queijo , a thin airy pastry made from egg roll dough was stuffed with mozzarella cheese and deep fried. Another egg roll-type pastry, pastel de camarao com palmito , had a filling of shrimp and hearts of palm. Multicultural ingredients may exemplify the Brazilian kitchen, but in this case I suspect Li’s untraditional rendition of the pastels many have something to do with his background--he owned a Chinese restaurant in Rio.

All the substantial entrees include a salad made with butter lettuce and hearts of palm, or caldo verde , an herb-flavored broth with chunks of sausage and potato and wisps of collard green. Our favorite dish that evening was camarao Paulista , a Brazilian version of scampi sauteed with generous quantities of garlic and parsley. Its accompaniment, farofa --cassava root flour that resembles coarse corn meal--is sprinkled over the shrimp to soak up the powerful sauce. One dish I do not recommend is bife a milanesa . The marinated beefsteak is too heavily breaded, although it does come with a huge bowl of superb black beans.

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The dinners are so satisfying it’s hard to get serious about dessert. There is a caramel custard and a standard carrot cake. But the espresso is unmistakably Brazilian. Cahfezhina , strong in the classic go-for-broke Brazilian style, is a perfect ending to these meals.

Recommended Dishes: Camarao a Bahiana dinner, $13.95; feijoada dinner, $9.95; pastel de queijo, $1 each; bolinhos de bacalhau, $3; espresso, $1.25.

DR, Karen Bell


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