In my youth, bar food meant nachos, burgers, and pizza—usually greasy. I was young, drunk, and stupid. Now, older yet no wiser, I was intrigued to try what is described as Comida de Rua (Brazilian style street food) at Carnaval Lounge (formerly Siberia).
How times have changed. Carnaval offers elevated bar food from Chef Gustavo Naar that could be served in any fine dining establishment. It’s prepared fresh, and the seasonings and sauces are gourmet caliber. With a menu of small plates that run from $4 to $15, it’s affordable. Order as little or as much as you want, and feel free to mix and match.
Food is available late night, so skip the drive thru. The vegetarian and vegan options are many and outstanding.
Order at the bar. Grab a Brazilian beer or cocktail such as a Caipirinha, then sit and relax. If you time it right, you’ll be treated to live music. When your food is ready, a buzzer alerts you to grab it from the cozinha—Portuguese for kitchen.
Cogumelos, sautéed mushrooms with shallots, garlic, rosemary, and demi-glace, were a revelation. They’re fresh and bathed in a delicious broth, then topped with micro greens.
I could see flames rising in the kitchen. Carnaval uses a grill to char the food, giving it caramelization that adds another layer of taste.
Vegetais are grilled fresh vegetables served with serrano lemon aioli. What elevates it is the grill, and the sauce, which has a terrific balance of acid and heat. It’s deftly cooked, not overly done. But that sauce, like all of the chef’s sauces and seasonings, had me yearning for more.
Picanha is marinated top sirloin, generally neither a tender nor flavorful cut due to its leanness. But the young chef has coaxed every imaginable nuance out of it, and the marinade succeeds in rendering it steak-like even over an open flame. There is no visible fat. A native Brazilian I spoke with in advance told me that it’s authentic.
The picanha, like many of the grilled items, are either dipped in or accompanied by molho, a Brazilian vinaigrette. It’s chunky, with bits of onion, peppers, tomato and other goodies swimming in a beautifully balanced sauce.
During Southern Decadence, I had heard a hot tip about the Coração De Frango, chicken hearts with fresh sage, rosemary, garlic, and lemon. Before you scream “oh no!,” hear me out. These were luscious, well-seasoned, and nowhere near as strong as liver. The heart is a muscle, so it helps to have good choppers. It comes with a side of farofa, toasted cava root, to mix in with the drippings.
The five-ounce gourmet Hamburguer Leo (obligatory bar food and a safe bet for plain eaters) is topped with arugula, tomato, mayo, and pickled red onion on a brioche bun. This is a sophisticated combination. It may look petite, but was filling.
It’s served with batatas fritas and garlic aioli dipping sauce. The fries are medium-sized shoestring and crisp. The flavored mayo is subtle and pairs perfectly.
Spare Ribs are from pork and dusted with farofa. They are served with black beans, rice, and topped with that same molho. I was stunned by the black beans, a dish I have never liked. They were tender and rich, and the rice was good too. The molho elevated them to another realm. I could not stop eating it (and joked I would take a bath in it). It’s available a la carte, without the ribs. They’re vegan too, which is remarkable given the level of flavor.
The ribs are served simply. Gustavo and his crew slow cooks them for several hours. Forget fork tender, I could pick the very generous portion apart with just my finger. In the Brazilian style, there is no BBQ sauce or dry rub to which Americans are accustomed. It doesn’t need it (though I might be tempted to order extra molho).
If you have the munchies for something sweet, the Creme de Papaia, fresh papaya blended with vanilla cream and topped with Creme de Cassis and a sprig of mint, also shows the sophistication of this kitchen. A shot over dessert makes perfect sense in a lounge—a refreshing treat for adults.
The attention to culinary detail at Carnaval is remarkable, which adds a welcome international addition to the area. Bar food? No, great food.
While I ate, David Roe was tickling the ivories in the background. He played Sweet Dreams. As I left, I smiled knowing I would have sweet dreams about this meal.
Carnaval Lounge, 2227 St. Claude Avenue near Elysian Fields, kitchen: Sun – Thurs 5-11 p.m., Fri – Sat 5 – Midnight, all major credit cards, (504) 265-8855, www.carnavallounge.com.
Charles Pizzo is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America and a lifelong foodie. He writes about food that he would recommend to the readers of Ambush. Restaurateurs: fancy the spotlight? There is no charge for editorial coverage; simply email the author to offer a tasting.