Legend has it that the first owner actually was Brazilian," our waiter muses as he admires the caramel-colored crema on top of our post-dinner espressos. "He left town after a year and a half because he couldn't find fresh mangoes in the state of Colorado."
This is my aha moment, my last question finally -- blissfully -- answered. Our meal at Cafe Brazil has been my best dining experience in Colorado since I moved back to the Front Range a year and a half ago, a journey into another family's universe so utterly charming that I'm ready to give up all of my earthly belongings and move right into this restaurant in northwest Denver. But until the waiter's observation, I haven't been able to shake one nagging thought: Despite its name, Cafe Brazil is not Brazilian.
During a stint in the Southern Hemisphere five years ago, I hit Rio after months of living in Argentina and immediately started gorging on pao di queijo -- balls of fluffy bread filled with cheese -- and thick slabs of juicy filet cut straight from a skewer, downing glass after glass of tropical fruit juices and basically saturating myself in a fresh, vibrant culinary culture that I was starving for after months of heavy, Italian-influenced cuisine. But I found none of these things at Cafe Brazil.
Even Cafe Brazil's dining room, while done in primary colors as vibrant as traditional Brazilian cooking and overlaid with a soundtrack of samba, didn't take me back to the sexy beach lounges overlooking the Atlantic. Rather than the glittering favelas of the hills above Rio, I found myself nostalgic for outdoor markets in the Boca neighborhood of Buenos Aires, for the coffee shops of Santiago's Barrio Bellavista -- places filled with brightly painted houses, impossibly crammed together like a surrealist painting somehow existing in the three-dimensional world.
Over firm Castelvetrano olives, fluffy tortilla Espanola and slices of lomo embuchado, the salty cured pork loin imported from Madrid, my dining companions and I reminisced about Spain and Colombia and Chile -- without once mentioning our travels to the vast, Portuguese-speaking nation on South America's east coast. And so I began to wonder why the restaurant that's been charming Denver diners for eighteen years now has the word "Brazil" in its name at all. Cafe Brazil's menu may claim roots in the seafood-rich state of Bahia, but it actually proffers continental South American fare with obvious European flourishes, as Spanish phrases creep in among the Portuguese just as pecorino and penne mix with palm oil and prawns.
That's not to say that Cafe Brazil displays no Brazilian influence at all. There's a fairly textbook xim xim, for instance, with chunks of chicken breast and grilled shrimp swimming in coconut milk and bright-orange dende oil, topped with cashews and packing a punch with ginger. Feijoada, the hearty black bean stew made with tenderloin and various types of cured pork that is Brazil's national dish, is on the menu, too. Although Cafe Brazil's rendition is less meaty than the versions I ate in Rio and I found no evidence of the usual tongue, it's served the traditional way, over rice with a pinch of farofa, coarse manioc flour that serves as garnish on many Brazilian meals. Still, it's telling that as Mauricio Zorrilla, one of the owners, pronounced the name of the dish, he let it roll off his tongue with a hard Spanish j. Turns out that's because he's originally from Colombia, as is his aunt, Marla Zarlenga.
In fact, many of the tastiest offerings on the menu are Colombian dishes with a Brazilian touch. The Peixe de Angola, for example, with Malagueta chiles tossed into the creamy fish stew made with sweet and spicy coconut milk and lime. More Colombian still are the crispy, sweet fried bananas gracing many plates and the Cazuela Colombiana -- a savory stew of tomato and chicken breast and prawns. And then there's the killer dulce de leche ice cream, creamy caramel gelato topped with espresso that precisely imitates the flavor of a candy that comes from Marla and Mauricio's native country.
But the menu sometimes strays far from the northern beaches of South America, detours that reflect the origins of Marla's husband, Tony Zarlenga, who's from Italy. The grilled manchego is unapologetically Mediterranean: stretchy Spanish cheese, grilled until lightly crispy on the outside, doused in creamy, garlicky pesto. A meat and cheese platter offered one night as a special spans the globe, with cured cuts of sausage from Spain and Uruguay piled next to sheep's-milk cheese from Italy and, inexplicably, Greek dolmades. Another special, this one an entree, brings a rack of Argentine lamb, succulent and pungent from three days of marinating in mint, garlic and hot peppers, topped with tart apricot sauce: It's delicious, if slightly overcooked. Desserts, too, run the international gamut, from a tart, cheesecake-like Key lime pie -- not impossible to find in South America, but decidedly Floridian in origin -- to baci semifreddo, a traditional Italian chocolate-hazelnut dessert that's like a cross between custard and ice cream, melting on the tongue after the gelatinous first bite.
When the first owner lost Cafe Brazil in the early '90s, Tony and Marla took it over, saving the place from falling off the map entirely. They also saved the name -- because Brazil has a great culture, great spirit and great reputation, and they wanted to channel that. But what they really wanted to create was a novolatino restaurant that offered a contemporary interpretation of the cuisine of Marla's home continent with influences from the Mediterranean, where both Marla and Tony attended cooking school. Cafe Brazil was to be a unique world of the couple's own creation, on everything from the menu to the artwork (which Marla paints when she's not working in the kitchen).
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The Zarlengas' rich novolatino world quickly attracted fans. The crowds kept coming when they moved the restaurant from the original ten-table spot on Navajo Street to Parisi's former home on Lowell Boulevard seven years ago, which is when they also brought in Marla's nephew as an owner. The colorful dining room is usually full, especially on weekends, with couples holding hands over tables and groups of friends convening over black-bean soup. The Rum Room, an expansion introduced last year because of the growing interest in spirits and cocktails, brings in a more casual cross-section of eaters attracted by one of the best happy-hour deals in town: free tapas with a first drink (see Want Rum Service? Visit Cafe Brazil.).
The food may not be authentically Brazilian, but it's delicious and artfully plated, representative of a kitchen that cares immensely about the dishes it sends out. Beyond the food, though, what really makes a meal here so good is the familial hospitality: Cafe Brazil is manned by a staff so knowledgeable, so authentically warm and attentive to detail, it's as if every employee on the floor is an owner. And the actual owners are in the trenches just like everyone else, indistinguishable from the host or the busboy save for the enchanting Colombian accents that are impossible to hide. Everyone anticipates a diner's every need. Mention to your dining companion that you want another mojito and it suddenly arrives, borne by a waiter who overheard your conversation. Let your glass fall empty just before your seafood entree comes, and the barman brings a taste of a Chilean sauvignon blanc, a crisp white from the heavily South American wine list that happens to cut the richness of your dish perfectly. Box up dinner but joke that you've got a second stomach for dessert, and your server will give you a few extra minutes to digest, timing the presentation of sweet offerings at the precise moment that you start to feel less full.
Cafe Brazil is too casual to be considered fine dining, but its service is the rose-colored lens through which dinner here is viewed, so above-and-beyond excellent that it makes the food taste better, the conversation flow better, and the entire night equal far more than merely a sum of its parts. And because of that, no matter what else Cafe Brazil may be, it represents dining at its most charming: It's a restaurant where you may go intending to eat just a quick bite, only to find you've blissfully and unknowingly whiled away an entire evening, talking, leaning back in your chair and laughing, long after the last sip of post-dinner espresso has disappeared.
Cafe Brazil 4408 Lowell Blvd. 303-480-1877 Hours: Tuesday-Saturday, 5-10 p.m.