At Samba Montclair, chef and owner Ilson Gonçalves pays homage to his grandmother's kitchen with a homey, Brasileiro menu.
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Newark’s Ironbound district has made the all-you-can-eat mixed grill synonymous with a rollicking good time. But there’s much more to Brazilian food than the carnivore carnival of rodizio. At his tiny, warm-hearted BYO, Samba Montclair, chef/owner Ilson Gonçalves pays homage to his grandmother’s kitchen—hanging her kind of copper pots and pans on the walls and bringing forth her kind of native cooking from the stoves.
Gonçalves grew up in southern Brazil in a family of cooks. His homey Brasileiro menu has its roots in the “chopping, helping, tasting” he did as a boy, when his grandmother’s hanging cookware filled him with awe—“all sizes, all polished, like musical instruments waiting to be played,” he told me on the phone.
When he was 11, his mother opened a little buffet, where he worked after school. “I came to New York for vacation when I was 23, in 2004,” he said. “I loved the energy and decided to change my life and work. It’s in my blood.”
I’ve made three trips to Brazil, each time joyously eating nonstop. Samba Montclair brings me right back to the aromas and flavors of that vivid country, as well as to its lilting beat, featured on the restaurant’s soundtrack. With tightly packed tables, only 32 seats and a tiny kitchen, Samba Montclair can strain. “I admit that my restaurant, like most, can’t be best during the Saturday slam,” said the 33-year-old chef/owner. “So much can go wrong. I tell my own friends. Don’t come here on Saturday night.” My Saturday dinner included dense, dry pão de queijo, Brazil’s celebrated cheese rolls. Two dishes were identically sauced and three of four desserts were duds.
Yet on a Sunday evening, the pão de queijo bounced back. Deep-fried salgadinhos, like croquettes, were crisp and filled with toothsome chicken, Brazilian cheese or chopped beef. Mandioca frita with linguiça, a seductive heap of fried yucca with peppery Portuguese sausage, quickly vanished. Yucca also stars in the bolinho de mandioca, akin to a large potato dumpling, filled with ground beef and butternut squash (“One of my mother’s favorite things to cook,” Gonçalves said). His potato-based soup with garlicky collard greens can be ordered with or without the linguiça sausage. I went “with.”
If you go without, there are pleasant salads like arugula and spinach with fresh lemon or orange vinaigrette. The house condiment, chopped garlic caramelized in olive oil, improves everything.
Entrées run to rich, lusty Brazilian stews, steaks and grilled fish. Beef, pork chops and fish are cooked precisely to order. A filet of farm-raised Atlantic salmon was enhanced with a reduction of maracuja, or passion fruit, the most beloved of Brazil’s cornucopia of tropical fruits. But the sides of white rice and steamed cauliflower were mere bystanders.
A cutlet of bife a cavalo, a fine peasant dish, was topped with two fried eggs and served with collards, rice and fried bananas. Stroganoff de frango (chicken) “is a recipe brought by Russians and Eastern Europeans who came to Brazil after the war,” Gonçalves said. “Now all the moms cook it.”
Feijoada, Brazil’s national dish, “is what my Brazilian diners come for,” Gonçalves noted. He serves an excellent version of this long-simmered black-bean stew, “but without the pig nose and ears and other parts we use in Brazil.” He starts the feijoada on Monday, “soaking the Brazilian dried beef and getting the salt out.” On Thursday, the beef, plus linguiça, fatback, pork ribs and buckets of black beans go into a giant pot to cook for 24 hours. The deeply smoky result is ladled out on Fridays and Saturdays, with a few orders left on Sundays.
A dish from Bahia, moqueca de bacalao, a tomato-based codfish stew made with coconut milk and dende (palm oil, Brazil’s unabashedly saturated fat) was even richer. Its coconut flavor was not as assertive as the versions I ate in Brazil, but it is worth trying. Gonçalves’ other Bahian dish, bobó de camarão, a shrimp stew, was shorter on coconut and failed to ignite.
Brazilian pastry chef Roger Gomes turns out a perfect flan, an exciting passion-fruit mousse and a deeply satisfying chocolate mousse almost as dense as a pot de crème. But his unsweetened, leaden carrot cake left me scratching my head. “This is a Brazilian carrot cake,” explained Gonçalves. “You have to be from there.”