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You have to look hard to find Ipanema Cafe, but once you discover it, you'll never forget it.

A Hidden Gem

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Ipanema Cafe
917 W. Grace St.
Dinner Tues. through Sun., 5:30-11 p.m.
213-0170

Sometimes, the hardest-to-find restaurants are the best. That theory certainly proves true in regard to a newish Grace Street eatery called Ipanema Cafe. Tucked almost unnoticeably below a computer shop, wedged between a parking lot and a topless bar, this cozy little place hasn't gone unnoticed. On a recent Friday night, a klatch of bike messengers held down the bar, while diners filled the booths along the wall. By 7 p.m., there were no seats left.

The service we encountered was exceptional: informed, approachable and quick to let us know when there might be a lag in the kitchen. Even beyond good manners and good service, our server seemed sincerely invested in making sure all went well.

When a recognizable local musician stopped by to say hello, he admitted to being a regular. Not only is the food good, he said, but the portions are just right. "Not too much, definitely enough," he stressed. He wasn't entirely right. We had enough food for two more people. Fortunately, unlike this friend, we are not dismayed by overly generous portions.

With short-term memories destroyed by sugar substitutes, we finally shamelessly stood at the blackboard — the only menu in the place — and copied the dishes we were pondering. The carrot coriander soup ($3.75) piqued my guest's interest, so I went for a salad. The soup was a large bowl of pureed carrot with a spark of fire and lots of fresh vegetable flavor. My Asian greens earned its $6.50 price tag. It was a large mound of greens on a large plate, lightly dressed and filled out with julienned snow peas, shiitake mushrooms, sprouts and almond chips for crunch. The dressing was identified as sesame cilantro but neither taste came through. It tasted more like a light vinaigrette. Both came with some of the best bread I've had anywhere.

My sandwich ($5.95) came on the same crusty, flavorful bread. Between two huge slices were hummus, avocado and slices of caramelly sweet oven-baked tomatoes. Alongside were sweet potato fries. Now I must digress for a moment. At the first sign of the trend, I was wowed by the idea of sweet potato fries. But no matter where I was, they always fell short of my expectations, arriving shrunken, limp and bitter tasting. I was pleased to find that Ipanema's sweet potato fries are nothing like any I've ever had before.

The good news is that they are not deep-fried, but pan-fried, bringing the sugar of the potato almost to a glaze. Also, they remain plump and firm, crispy but not crunchy. We were so knocked out by them that we stopped the meal and ordered another round. Which brings us to the bad news: You can only pan-fry so many orders at once. If you take nothing else from this missive, be convinced that these are worth the wait. A piece of advice: Don't plan to share; you'll regret it.

My guest's linguine was a delightful melange of pasta, zucchini, squash, and wilted baby spinach and arugula, in a sharp, spicy artichoke sauce. At $10.95, it was a bargain.

After the overwhelming success of the bread, we knew we were in for good baked goods for desserts. We weren't disappointed. The crŠme br–lée was sweet and creamy, and the only thing we had had that seemed small, even though it was standard crŠme br–lée-size. The strawberry-apple pie featured a homemade lattice crust, but I suspect that the bottom crust was not homemade. However, it did not detract from the pie — just an observation. Both desserts were $3.50.

I have only two complaints: The chalkboard menu at the door is the only one in the house. So if you're undecided, you have to keep visiting the front door to finalize choices. Secondly, the lavatory, while sporting a really cool metal look, has no sink inside, and the one outside the door looked a lot dirtier than my hands.

Neither complaint would keep me away from Ipanema Cafe. Both the food and the service are so generous and good that it would take much worse to discourage

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