Review: Ipanema Food & Art Society, Ponsonby

By Peter Calder


Herald on Sunday Rating: 4/5
Address: 2 Ponsonby Rd, Ponsonby
Ph: (09) 3600655

The old-world European cafe decor ideally suits Ipanema Food & Art Society. Photo / Doug Sherring
The old-world European cafe decor ideally suits Ipanema Food & Art Society. Photo / Doug Sherring

The Brazilians have a word for it: saudade. Nostalgia, the official translation of the Portuguese, doesn't really nail it: it's a deep, inchoate longing - part yearning, part happy memory - for something that you will never experience again.

They take saudade very seriously in Brazil. They even have Saudade Day on January 30, which I wasn't aware of when I lived for six months in Salvador da Bahia, in the northeast, about 40 years ago. I suspect that's because you can't understand saudade when you're in Brazil; it becomes plain what it means once you've left.

I had a serious attack of saudade when I ate at the intriguingly named Ipanema Food & Art Society, which has been open barely three weeks. Maybe it was the sunny smile of co-owner Ana Mendina, who welcomed us with genuine warmth, and chased us down the street as we left so she could kiss us goodbye; certainly the food took me back to small family-run restaurants with dirt floors, where chickens pecked among the banana palms in the yards outside and little kids stared.

I hasten to add that Ipanema is not a dirt-floor restaurant: the handsome fitout has erased the place's former identity as a characterless bar and reproduces that old-world European cafe decor that you find in the subcontinent's cities - walls of wood panelling beneath white plaster, wooden furniture exuding a honey glow, white linen.

A bonus, as the establishment's name suggests, is some striking naive art on the walls. But the menu is inspired by the honest peasant cooking I remember from Bahia, which blends European and African traditions to pleasing effect unique in my experience.

With Ana's assistance, I soon ran to earth some of the food I'd eaten in the 70s. Ordering feijoada for my main course was a no-brainer: the thick stew of pork and black beans served with white rice was a favourite. My helping of the version rustled up by chef (Ana's husband) Jeronimo didn't have any sausage, which was a shame, but it otherwise observed the essentials of the classic recipe, right down to the roasted coarse cassava flour called farofa on the side.

I had started with acaraje, a real native of the northeast: big croquettes of mashed black-eyed pea, filled with fried shrimps.

The dense balls of bean paste seemed to soak up the garlic, chilli and coriander and the dish was a bold and spicy delight.

The Professor bridled only slightly when I told her I was ordering for her to stop her asking for the fish of the day, but she cheered up immensely when she tried the siri na casca (crab in the shell) that arrived: shredded crab meat cooked with garlic, lemon grass, coconut cream and coriander was blended into a paste that was served in the shell. I thought it a little dry, but she tells me I was wrong about that, as I am about many things. I thought the last comment unnecessary.

There is actually a fish of the day (with confit plantain and cassava crisps) but I went one better and got her muqueca, the famous fish stew that also comes from the northeast: fish and prawns with lime, ginger, garlic and capsicum in coconut cream. She was impressed.

We finished off with an excellent passionfruit mousse and "pudim" (pudding) which is the word they use for their very dense creme caramel.

Ana greeted with wide-eyed incredulity the news that we did not want strong coffee to finish, but I don't doubt it would have been superb.

From the wine list, which has the most creative spelling of riesling I've yet encountered, I felt obliged to choose a Brazilian drop, if only because I never knew there was such a thing. It's a relatively modern industry, I gather, located in the far south of the country, and the merlot I tried, dense and solid and very Old World, was excellent.

Ipanema's full name doesn't convey the importance they plainly attach to music. The establishment actually occupies three storefronts and provides a restaurant, a bar and a dance floor with a small stage for the band. The night we were there, Robbie Laven and Marion Arts, who have been making great music since I was in short pants, were playing. Jeronimo joined them when the kitchen closed. Naturally.

Need to know

Value: $$

$ = $20-$40; $$ = 40-60; $$$ = $60+.
(Price guide reflects three courses for one person without drinks)

Also try

Navas at No14 does excellent and very cheap Malaysian. Avoid Sawadee's McThai.

- Herald on Sunday

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