75 Pleasant St.
Hours: 5 to 9 p.m. Monday and Tuesday, 5 to 9:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, 5 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday
All major credit cards accepted
Accessible to the handicapped
Brazo, the new upscale, ultramodern Latin restaurant on the Seacoast, is to die for. We're talking not only about the exciting menu but also the hip atmosphere and décor. We just wanted to move in, drink sangria, listen to salsa, and eat duck confit empanadas all the time. But, alas, we only could stay for an early dinner one recent Saturday night.
We started that meal with two from what was an amazing list of appetizers. We chose the almond-encrusted softshell crab ($13) and an order of medianoche ($12).
We were blown away by the quality and size of the crab, considering this is not softshell season. This specimen was the size of a dessert plate and decidedly fresh. One of the things we love about this kind of crustacean is its crispy texture; you can eat the shell and all. And the crab was made even crunchier by the delicate nut covering placed over a bed of crunchy, peppery watercress. A spicy sauce kicked it all into warp speed.
And while we know the medianoche is a Cuban sandwich traditionally eaten late at night (medianoche means midnight) after burning up calories by salsa dancing into the wee hours, we made it a starter instead.
Brazo was true to the medianoche tradition in that this was a small sandwich (we were served two) made with pulled pork, ham, and Swiss cheese with pickles pressed and grilled between pieces of sweet bread. We loved this so much that we wished we hadn't ordered an entrée so we could pig out on another goblet of the fruity, but far from cloying, Brazilian sangria ($10).
But there they were, right after the appetizers - our entrées - churrasco Brazo ($25) and the chili relleno ($18).
The churrasco (a Brazilian term referring to a way of grilling meat) was a heaping pile of organic skirt steak marinated with the spicy ancho or poblano chili, grilled, then topped with a traditional, tangy chimichurri - a combination marinade and sauce originally from Argentina. The dish was served with sweet-potato fries.
We appreciated the fact that we were eating corn-fed beef and loved the bite of this dish, which, like other items on the menu, was enhanced with the cool tang of fresh watercress as a kind of salad/garnish. But while it was good, it wasn't $25 good. It wasn't the spices or the chimichurri, but rather the steak itself that lacked a certain depth that didn't quite stand up to the bold, South American flavors. The fries were excellent - not too hard, not too mushy, and, like the sweet potatoes, tasted like they were harvested that day.
The chili relleno was small but exceptional with its stuffing of Cuban rice, roasted corn salsa, and goat cheese with an intense, smoky chipotle crema.
Even the desserts at Brazo don't escape the Latin touch, including our choices, which were traditionally American with ingredients and flavors garnished from more exotic climes.
We couldn't imagine where the unusual bite was coming from in our banana chocolate bread pudding ($8) but learned that the chef added a touch of ancho to the confection that came to the table in its own cast-iron skillet - hot with vanilla ice cream on top.
One person in our party loved this dessert and found the marriage of the banana, bread, chocolate, and chili cooled down with the ice cream to be perfection. Another, who is an aficionado of traditional bread pudding, thought it a little muddy and heavy.
But everyone raved about the orange-ginger cheesecake, which they found lighter in consistency and far more exciting in flavor than the usual restaurant offerings.
Brazo is so refreshing in its Latin and South American approach to food and flavor that almost anything on the menu is worth trying because it is so unlike the food we're used to eating, and because it is a brilliant blend of the best of several cuisines Argentinean, Brazilian, and Cuban.