Friday Night Date: O Caranguejo with Babysitters Provided

There is something to be said for having a neighborhood hangout, somewhere you can go and they give you a friendly look and don’t really even need to take your order.   I have been on the lookout for one here since we arrived. Immediately, I was intrigued by a bustling little corner restaurant, O Caranguejo (The Crab), a few blocks from the house near the metro.  It isn’t a very fancy place, but isn’t as dirty as some of the other little corner establishments near us.   We could call it rustic.   The demographic isn’t quite ours either, but it seems to have regulars and I took that as a good sign.

I looked into reviews.   A few years back it won a prize for its shrimp empanadas, but more recent reviews were mediocre rather than glowing.  Guide books said its prices were reasonable, but in passing by with our friends that were visiting a few weeks ago I took one glance and thought they were way too high.  What I didn’t realize at that time was that one plate, or rather a half a plate, easily feeds two to four people.

Friday was a long day.   L and I spent a good part of our afternoon hanging out a McDonald’s play area in the burbs waiting for our car to be fixed.   We got home late and both S and I were in need of a date night.   Given that it was cool out and late, we didn’t want to venture far since we had to be back in time for L’s bedtime so we decided to give O Caranguejo a go.

We got there around 6:30 and outside seating was taken so we sat inside.   We ordered a bottle of wine, the shrimp empanadas and the HALF seafood paella.  The empanadas were small and okay.  We have had better.  L prefers her empanandas deconstructed (or rather she picks out the shrimp).  The paella did not quite fit what I consider a traditional paella but I lived with an amazing Spanish roommate in Egypt who could cook a killer paella, so perhaps I am a harsh judge.    Had this been called a seafood shrimp casserole or some other name, it would have been great.

But really, I am not about to complain about semantics here.   What really rocked the night was that S and I actually got a pretty kid-less date.  Only in Brazil would this happen and it all be okay.  Early when we got there, S took L to the bathroom.  On the way out our waiter caught them and told Lara to come with him.   The restaurant is very small and the indoor area only has about ten tables.   The waiter guided L over to a table a few tables from us and pulled out the chair, introducing her to an older couple.   He looked at us, winked, and told us that the woman is crazy about kids.   Before we knew it, L was drawing and making napkin balls, and talking their ears off, and S and I were drinking wine and discussing adultish kind of stuff.

Fifteen minutes into our dinner, S winked at me and told me that he even could get them to feed L.   I knew they were an easy target and within seconds they waiter was taking L’s plate to the other table.   A couple bites later, L sent her plate back and came to sit with us, but as soon as her dinner was finished she was off to play with her new friends.

As we paid the bill, S nonchalantly asked the waiter if the couple comes often.  He laughed and said every day.   The couple turned around and said they can’t wait to see L again am pretty sure that S and I both decided at that moment that our search for a neighborhood hangout had come to an end, especially if sitters are provided!

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Escaping the City: Petropolis

On Saturday we decided to take a day trip to Petropolis with some friends and get out of the city for a bit. We took a round about way to get there in order to car pool and were not alone in our desire to escape so with the traffic it took us over an hour to go the 40 miles to get there.

Petropolis is high up in the Serra Fluminense and the last part of the trip is spent climbing steep inclines, looking down on the beautiful valley below.

We arrived late morning and stopped at Casa do Alemão on our way in to get something to tide us over until lunch. Perhaps my perception of German cuisine has been skewed by the fact that I have only visited my close friends in one city on two different occasions, one of whom is not even German, but I assumed that my cappuccino wouldn’t be loaded with sugar. Not true. This is still Brazil.

While Casa do Alemão has decent reviews, I was less than impressed. Partly, I am sure, because I am a vegetarian. I ordered a croquete de bacalhau (saltad cod) and a brioche de queijo for L and me.   L ate the croquete dripping with catchup but totally passed on the brioche. S ordered the chicken sausage sandwich. The place was absolutely packed and had our food arrived warm it might have been good, but overall it was pretty disappointing.

From there we made our way to Quitandinha Palace where we walked around, took the swan boats for a spin, and visited the palace, part of which has now been converted to a hotel and trade center.

Given that S and I both hate shopping, we drove by Rua Teresa while L squeezed in a nap before lunch. Petropolis has a number of factories and is literally a shopping attraction. Bus loads of people strolled along the street, their arms packed with purchases.

We drove back to downtown to have lunch and admired the quaint, if rundown, charm of the tree-lined streets and the European architecture. After lunch we walked through the garden leading to the Imperial Palace. The entrance line snaked around the building so we decided to pass on going through the museum (this time). We spent a lovely afternoon playing with L and avoiding what we probably should have been doing at home all weekend before packing up and heading back.

The final verdict is that it is definitely a place we will go back to. In the spring (October and November) they have a Jazz/Blues Festival and a food festival as well. I think if it had been earlier in the day, L would have actually liked the Imperial Palace and Museum. The city is also filled with a number of other historic buildings and churches that warrant a visit. Good thing it isn’t that far away.

We left later than we wanted, but it was well worth it as we wound our way down the mountain to catch the sunset. We stopped at a lookout and watched the sun disappear behind the mountain and then made our way back to Rio.

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First Birthday in Rio

On Tuesday night S and L took me out for my first birthday dinner in Rio. L and I took the metro to the centro to meet up with S. From there we drove to Santa Teresa. Getting lost on the way allowed L to squeeze in a nap before dinner, which worked well since dinners here tend to drag on a bit.

We climbed to the top of some hill and parked in front of a rather nondescript restaurant, Aprazivel. Built into the hillside, you descend a steep staircase into the restaurant that provides spectacular views of the city.

The restaurant itself is quite large with different ambiances. We were seated on the veranda, overlooking the city.

This would be a lovely date venue, but given that we are still sitter-less and had a little one in tow, I can say that it also works for kids (They brought L small silverware, split S’s juice into a little glass with a short straw, and even gave her some little cakes for dessert, which she didn’t even look twice at after seeing what S and I ordered. Nonetheless, they were quite attentive and the restaurant itself was full of little things that keep a toddler entertained–bowls of wooden food in the front, chili plants scattered about, random wooden/iron animal figures here and there to keep L’s imagination going).

The food has a northeastern flair, the region where S is from.  From our experience and from reviews it seems like the food is a bit hit or miss.  It is the ambiance and the view that knocks this place over the top.  Given that it was my birthday, luck was on my side.   S ordered the Delicioso Cabrito, goatling roasted in red wine with a yam puree, caramelized onions, mushrooms and broccoli.  I ordered the Moquequinha do Rio, fish stewed in coconut milk with a side of rice, farofa de dendê (palm oil), and pirão (a gravy made with fish broth and cassava flour).  S thought his was a bit fatty and flat, mine was done perfectly.

S was driving and with the lei seca (dry law) here in Brazil, he couldn’t partake in wine, but I could.  They had a large selection of Brazilian wines, but only one red offered by the glass, a Hex Von Wein Cabernet Sauvignon.  It was better than I expected, but not great.

We had to order dessert, if for no other reason than L assumed that birthday meant there was going to be a party and cake.  Since there was no party, we definitely needed some cake.    I ordered the Petit Gateau, a chocolate cake filled with chocolate sauce with a side of vanilla ice cream and toasted almonds.  S ordered the Baião de Dois, a tapioca ice cream with açaí sauce.   Two very different desserts, but both very good.  L devoured my dessert, but the few bites I fought for and won were worth it.    S’s was subtle and surprisingly not overly sweet like so much of the food is here.

The service was attentive.  If the States was my point of reference, I would say it was a bit slow, but given my experience here thus far, it was rather efficient.

We were in around 7 p.m. and left by 9 p.m.    Home with a toddler tucked in before 10 p.m. and in bed by 11 p.m.

Let’s face it, I’m getting old.   This was my kind of birthday!

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Winter Weekend in Rio: Biking the City

Hearing all my friends and family complain about the heat in the States, I started to think how enjoyable the weather was here. Then it hit me–this is WINTER in Rio!

I have never been one to follow the weather and even after years living abroad, Celsius still doesn’t quite register with me. Instead I try to gauge the weather by watching people pass by my apartment. But here it is impossible. One person will pass by in shorts and a tank top, the next with jeans, boots, and a jacket.

Some days I leave in jeans and a t-shirt and by the time I get to the bottom of the hill, I realize it is too much. Other days it is just the opposite.

This weekend wasn’t hot or cold, but chilly enough that we knew that the beach wasn’t really going to be an option (for us–nothing seems to deter Cariocas from going to the beach). So we finally had the push we needed to get our bikes ready to ride.

We found a bike shop a few blocks away, filled our tires with air and continued to the beach. Biking the city is less than ideal. With no bike lanes we had to weave between pedestrians, parked cars, and newspaper stands on the sidewalks to get to the bike path along the beach. Once there, it was lovely.

On Saturday, we rode to Ipanema and stopped for lunch at Manoel & Juaquim. While the food looked good, the fish was dry and the broccoli and rice were greasy. We were less than impressed. From there we biked to Lagoa and up the mountain to the house. I had been dreading that incline alone, let alone with an extra 40 pounds (L plus the bike seat) on the back of my bike, but I made it, and I feel it today!

On Sundays the city closes Avenida Atlantica during the day and people pour out to run, bike, skateboard and walk. But mostly people come out to stroll along the waterfront, which just gave us more room to weave in and out of a pedestrian maze. While somewhat annoying, it provided the perfect venue for people watching and a game of I Spy.

We rode to the edge of Leblon and took a break on the beach where we could watch the parasailers land in the distance and tractors move sand. Biking home we found a street leading home with an actual bike lane. It was hard to tell if it is actually respected, but we took our chances and enjoyed a few blocks of uninterrupted riding.

Now that L and I have the bike, I am ready to take on our mission to visit every park in Zona Sul, provided my successful trip up the mountain wasn’t just beginners luck!

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A Perfect Sunday: Brunch at Fort Copacabana

Now that Rio + 20 has wrapped up the city is clearing out. Still we were a bit leery to head to what had been the epicenter of much of the action, Fort Copacabana (Forte de Copacabana).    We got there at 10 a.m. feeling like we were quite late.  As it ends up, the restaurants don’t open until 10 a.m. so we were perfectly on time.    Note that for early toddler breakfasts we need to find a different location.

The line outside was long, but the best thing about having a toddler (or being old or pregnant for that matter) in Brazil is that you have access to preferential lines.  We buzzed past the crowd and were through the gates in a matter of minutes.   We settled into a table at Confectionaria Colombo that overlooked the beach, and the mountain that we see every morning when we look out our window (literally, you can touch it from our window).

On an attempt to have a day to just ourselves, we ended up without a camera or a phone.

Confectionaria Colombo at Fort Copacabana provides a perfect view of Copacabana beach and the Sugar Loaf in the distance on a clear day.

We ordered an omelet and a café da manhã light that came with yogurt, granola, a bread basket, fresh cheese and deli turkey, cream cheese and honey, a small plate of sweets, and fresh orange juice.  We ordered two cappuccinos.   As avid brunchers and spoiled by Chicago, I will try not to be too hard on the food.   The omelet was okay. The addition or oregano made it taste more like a pizza.  The bread included both white and whole grain.   L was happy with the yogurt and granola.   The sweets were a disappointment.   The cappuccinos were horrible, overly sweet and topped with two inches of whipped cream.   I have to learn that sweet is the default here so if I want a plain cap.  I need to make that explicit.     While I wasn’t impressed with the food, I would definitely go back.  Knowing brunch isn’t a thing here like it is in the States, I have adjusted my expectations, and the view and the company made it totally worth it.

We finished breakfast and walked to edge to look out over the ocean and up and down the coast and then headed to the beach.   And just like that, in a matter of ten minutes were were sprawled out on the beach with L running back and forth between us and the water.   We met a little girl who had the same birthday, whose mother was extremely generous in offering me advice on hospitals, pediatricians, and preschools.   Of course, with my Portuguese, I repeat everything she said in an effort to remember and consequently forget by the time it leaves my mouth.   Luckily she offered me her number and email before I even had to ask.

We walked up the beach and back home, stopping by the bike shop to pick up the stroller that got a flat tire last week on my way home.   The rest of the afternoon has been lazy, but napless, and now it is time to celebrate with a little taste of home by breaking into a coveted bag of chocolate chips to make cookies.