If you dine at Côco Louco Brasil, beware the teapot. Your server may bring this to your table at the end of your meal, along with dainty white demitasses and a knowing smirk. The arrangement looks exactly like the tea service at the average Chinese restaurant, but that ain't tea inside the pot. It's cachaça, Brazil's national spirit, fermented and distilled sugarcane juice.
You've likely encountered cachaça in a caipirinha, a refreshing cocktail of cachaça, lime and sugar. It's the perfect summer cocktail, sweet, tart and bracing. (If you've never tried one, imagine a mojito without the mint.) By itself, cachaça is mostly just bracing, a burst of sweetness followed by a kick in the ass. Those braver than I shot it like tequila. I took little sips. With long pauses in between. It was served in a demitasse, after all.
The "côco louco" in Côco Louco Brasil means "crazy coconut." I didn't see any coconuts inside the restaurant — to be fair, I didn't look very hard — but it possesses a certain madcap energy, most of which belongs to owner and chef Jorge Carvalho. He always seems to be several places at once: walking the floor, handing out shots of cachaça at the bar, chatting with regulars.
Such carnaval-esque atmospherics have landed Carvalho in hot water in the past. He closed his previous restaurant, Café Brasil, last year after several run-ins with Rock Hill city officials concerned about out-of-hand partying at the eatery.
Carvalho opened Côco Louco Brasil in January at the corner of North Euclid Avenue and Washington Boulevard in the Central West End, in the space last occupied by the restaurant Mélange. (A friend swore to me she recognized Côco Louco's silverware as Mélange's.) You enter into the cozy bar, narrow and dim. The single dining room is a large space with high ceilings and floor-to-ceiling windows along one wall. Though spacious, it does feel cramped: Tables are close together, and the constant whirl of servers bearing skewers of meat and trays of food can feel awfully close.
I'd never eaten at Café Brasil, so I arrived at Côco Louco a blank slate. In more ways than one, actually. St. Louis isn't a hotbed of Brazilian cuisine: There is Yemanja Brasil in Benton Park and the meat coma-inducing churrascaria Bacana Brasil in Chesterfield (reviewed in "Meatier Shower," August 9, 2007) and not much else. I was intrigued to try more of a cuisine with which I'm not as familiar.
This turned out to be more difficult than I'd expected — mainly because Côco Louco's menu is so long. Where to start? Novices and those whose experience with Brazilian food is limited to a churrascaria like Bacana Brasil or one of the many national chains that advertise in in-flight magazines might jump to the churrasco dinners. Churrasco is Brazilian barbecue. The meat is cooked over an open flame and served tableside from long metal skewers.
At a churrascaria servers walk around the dining room with entire hunks of meat and carve slices for you at your table. Usually, you eat as much as you want for a set price. Côco Louco doesn't offer the churrascaria experience. You choose a cut of meat, and this, along with thickly sliced onion and green pepper, is grilled and then brought to your table on a skewer. Your server uses a small sword to slide the food from the skewer onto your plate.
I tried the espeto misto, a mixed grill with onion, pepper and one shrimp, one smoked sausage, one piece of chicken wrapped in bacon, one piece of filet mignon wrapped in bacon and a couple of pieces of picanha. (Picanha is "Brazilian-cut steak," according to the menu; the underrated cut top sirloin is an American equivalent.) Each of these meats is available on its own, as are lamb and porterhouse steak. The meats offered the simple pleasure of all grilled meat, beautifully browned and juicy. However, none but the smoked sausage bore a truly distinctive flavor.
The espeto misto is served with white rice, beans, a vegetable medley, sautéed collard greens and farofa, granular, crunchy yucca flour that adds more texture than flavor. In fact, nearly every dish comes with at least two or three of these side dishes.
Côco Louco offers numerous seafood dishes. On one visit I opted for the special: a whole red snapper, fried. The fish did indeed arrive whole — gutted, of course, but with the head still attached — though the kitchen had cut the fillet from one side and served it atop the other so I wouldn't have to turn the fish over. The batter was light and crisp, and it was topped with a mild tomato-olive mixture more like a relish than a sauce. Mostly, the clean, lightly sweet flavor of the fish carried this dish.
On another visit I tried peixada, a stew of cod in palm oil, coconut milk and fresh herbs. The stew is a medium orange in color, like an especially milky Thai red curry — and, like a Thai curry, the interplay of sweet coconut milk and pungent herbs and spices is as important to the dish as the meat or, in this case, the plump pieces of cod. The peixada was more sweet than pungent, though. I wanted more seasoning.
The most famous Brazilian dish is probably feijoada, a black-bean stew as dark as pitch and as thick as the St. Louis summer heat. Chunks of steak, smoked sausage and bacon provide the ballast of Côco Louco's version. It's an excellent dish, rich and savory, and once you add a sprinkle of farofa and a squeeze of orange (several slices come with the dish), the flavor has more pop than you might expect.
Appetizers include the pastel, the Brazilian empanada, a fried pastry shell stuffed with your choice of chicken, beef or cheese. All three make for satisfying snacks. Coxinha are intriguing in theory — "chicken-flavored dough stuffed with a chicken filling and deep fried" — but the result screams Chicken McNugget. I wanted to sample dessert, but when I asked what the day's selection was, our waiter rattled off a decidedly American list: chocolate cake, carrot cake and apple pie.
Service is all over the place. Servers are friendly and more than happy to explain the dishes, but just getting an empty glass cleared could take multiple trips. The wait for drinks from the bar was especially annoying. Only a few beers are available on draft. Reasonably priced South American wines make up the bulk of the wine list. But you'll want to try at least one caipirinha, popular enough here that the drink is kept on tap.
I left Côco Louco Brasil still intrigued by Brazilian cuisine. And between the loud music and, on a busy night, the undeniable energy, it's tough not to have a good time there. But the food lacks that extra kick of seasoning to be as memorable as that first sip of cachaça.
Careful, though — a few more sips and you won't remember anything at all.