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Seafood instead of skewers

Email|Print| Text size + By Sacha Pfeiffer
January 4, 2007

For many Americans, Brazilian cuisine means red meat. Or self-service buffets selling food by the pound. Or churrascarias where skewers of barbecued pork, lamb, and sausage are sliced directly onto your plate.

Muqueca is a different kind of Brazilian restaurant. It specializes not in the beef of the pampas, the grassy fields in southern Brazil where cattle are raised, but in the fish and shellfish of Brazil's lakes, rivers, and Atlantic coast. Seafood pie, red snapper, salt cod casserole, fish soup: This is what Muqueca's owners, Antonio and Fafa Gomes, ate in Espirito Santo, their coastal home state in Brazil.

And it's what they serve at the shoebox-sized restaurant they opened in East Cambridge six years ago. Their specialty is moqueca ($11.95-$14.95), a seafood stew of cilantro, tomato, onion, and a mixture of fish, shrimp, or mussels. It's a blue-ribbon creation -- light, healthful, rich in flavor, still bubbling with heat when it arrives, and elegantly served in a clay pot nestled in a decorative metal stand.

Ditto for the divine seafood pie ($15.95), a chunky mishmash of white fish, salted cod, crab, mussels, and the tiniest shrimp I've ever seen. Even when we were full we couldn't get enough and kept scooping spoonfuls until the pot was scraped clean. "Pop art" is how my mother described its looks -- a paper-thin topping of cooked egg, rings of onion baked into the eggy top, an olive plunked in each ring. A Rorschach test came to mind.

There's red meat on the menu, too, including sirloin, tripe stew, and roast pork. There's also feijoada ($11.95), the hearty Brazilian national dish of black beans, pork, sausage, bacon, and dried beef, accompanied by plantains, oranges, collard greens shredded like confetti, and white rice seasoned with olive oil, garlic, and salt.

This is marvelous, distinctive food. The soups ($3.50-$4.95) are excellent, especially fish soup thickened with yucca. Deep-fried red snapper (market price), a whole fish with an olive in its eye socket, gets nicely gritty crunch from a cornmeal coating. Shrimp sauteed in garlic, olive oil, and cilantro ($6.95) makes an ideal light starter, as does an unusual house salad ($5.95) of apples, olives, corn, tomatoes, heart of palm, and lettuce. But the Brazilian patties ($4.95-$5.95) are too doughy, and even though I like the greaseless fried yucca ($3.95), its "secret sauce" tastes like mayo from a jar.

A few warnings: Vegetarian options are few, although several dishes can be made with tofu, and some entrees are uncomfortably filling, like shrimp bobo ($11.95) in thick yucca sauce and chicken strogonoff ($8.95) with heavy cream. Strogonoff may sound strangely un-Brazilian, just like the lasagna. But they're popular in Brazil, modified regionally. The strogonoff, for example, contains heart of palm, comes with rice rather than noodles, and is sprinkled with potato sticks, while the lasagna is made with plantains, not meat, tomatoes, or pasta.

The restaurant lacks a liquor license but makes up for that with its juice bar, which is stocked with tropical fruit that's blended into naturally sweet drinks ($2.85). I occasionally longed for earplugs, because the juicer's loud grinding can become grating. But it's a joy to eat in this brightly colored, plant-filled place that feels like a cheerful home kitchen.

And what glorious desserts! Passionfruit and mango mousses ($3) explode with fruit flavor. Spumante ($3), a milky custard, is made special by a topping of prune and strawberry. Tapioca-coconut cake ($3) tastes like tropical rice pudding. Even the simple brigadeiros ($1.50), creamy chocolate balls made of condensed milk and rolled in chocolate sprinkles, are a hit.

MUQUECA

Cuisine: Brazilian/Latin

Address: 1093 Cambridge Street, Cambridge (Inman Square)

Phone: 617-617-3296

Hours: Tue-Thu 11 a.m.-9 p.m., Fri-Sat 11 a.m.-10 p.m., Sun noon-7 p.m.

Prices: Appetizers $3.50-$6.95, entrees $6.95-$15.95.

Comments: Reservations for 10 or more.Closed Mon.; closes 5 p.m. Sun.

May We Suggest: Fish soup, fruit juices, shrimp sautee, seafood pie, moqueca, feijoada, passionfruit or mango mousse.

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