Brazilian Cocktails and Sushi
Served at Vela’s Hydraulic Tables
Everything about Vela is black. The walls are black, the mirrors are black, the metallic banquettes that curve like waves above your head are black, the tables and floor are black. The staff wears black; even the immense long bar is black (except for the bottles behind it, of course). If you’re wearing black, you’ll simply disappear into your banquette, your disembodied head floating in space like one of the egg-like creatures in a painting by Paul Klee-and from time to time your disembodied hand will be seen lifting a pair of chopsticks.
“This place is more like a 70’s nightclub than a Japanese restaurant,” said a friend who was appropriately dressed in a black shirt and nursing a martini when I arrived. “It reminds me of Studio 54 and Heartbreak.”
I read somewhere that the Spanish director Luis Buñuel said the only way to make a perfect martini was to let a streak of sunlight pass through the bottle of vermouth and your glass before you poured in the gin. No chance of sunlight here. But there are candles- vela means candle in Portuguese-and huge pink silk lampshades that cast a gentle glow over the tables. Outside the club-I mean restaurant-there’s a red velvet rope and, in the vestibule, a vast gold-painted wall inlaid with tiny glass beans. A waterfall cascades behind the reception desk where the dark-suited host checked off our reservation and led us into the cavernous dining room, where the columns are covered in bamboo.
On a recent evening, the tables along the banquettes were filled with groups of wide-eyed young women decked out like tropical birds in bright summer colors, tossing back their hair and, from time to time, giving vent to piercing, bird-like shrieks. The crowd around the bar was mostly male. It felt like prom night. I couldn’t believe this was the same place that for years was Cal’s, an amiable neighborhood restaurant famous for its hamburgers.
Now the food is an up-to-the-minute blend of Japanese ingredients and the tropical flavors of Brazil. The chef at Vela, Joo-Joo Kim, was formerly at Sushi Samba in South Beach. In addition to traditional sushi, there are dishes such as cherry-blossom smoked yellowtail served with mango salsa, and skewers of salmon cured with lemongrass and pumpkin and topped with avocado. Translucent slices of pink snapper are lined up on a long plate, garnished with plum mousse and a refreshing citrussy yuzu-lychee vinaigrette. As a side dish, there’s black rice or black beans-and if you’re into an all-black version of rice and beans, you can get both.
Vela is as much about the cocktails as it is about the food. If you believe that the only drink that goes with Japanese cuisine is a chilled barrel-aged sake or beer, then you’ll blanch at the idea of ordering a caipirinha instead. It’s Brazil’s national drink, made with cachaça, a white rum distilled from sugar cane. Vela serves it traditional style; with lime or passion fruit and lychee purées (called a “Buzios” after a popular beach outside Rio). They also carry artisanal cachaças as well as sakes and wines.
Spicy dishes such as the tuna “pinchos,” tuna sashimi served on crispy rice, and the rock shrimp tempura, flavored with sweet sake and served with a spicy dashi sauce, are great with cocktails, even martinis. So are the smoky char-grilled Kobe beef skewers, cooked rare and topped with barbecue sauce and jalapeño. The lobster tempura, on the other hand, was a disaster; it came wrapped in asparagus and served with a heavy sesame batter so thick that it reminded me of the wrapping on pigs-in-a-blanket-and it certainly wasn’t worth $18.
On one occasion, a special of the day was a dish that looked like a particularly terrifying monster in a horror movie. Three plump, luminous and very orange uni and soft-boiled quail eggs were perched on a nest of ice and the longest sea-urchin spikes I’ve ever seen-they must’ve been at least three inches; if you stepped on one of those, you’d be laid up for a month. The waiter set down a small white jug on the side of the dish. “Low-sodium soy sauce.” As if anyone cared. But the uni was terrific. I wish they’d put this on the menu every day.
Joo-Joo Kim creates intriguing combinations, such as stuffed “oshinko” wraps made with four different kinds of raw fish arranged on a long platter around pickled vegetables. Fluke is wrapped around a caperberry; a piece of tuna embraces a Japanese radish; salmon comes with hearts of palm, and smoked yellow tail with pickled spicy cucumber. This dish can’t really be shared, and I’m sure you won’t want to either. Another plate from the “Vela Rolls” section of the menu consists of rolls of anago (sea eel), cut into bite-size pieces, as well as shiso leaves, ginger, narazuke (wintermelon, marinated in miso and sake) and kanpyo (a Japanese gourd).
There are also larger plates, including a Wagyu rib eye and lobster with scallops, hearts of palm and spicy Brazilian sausage. Pan-seared duck comes in tender, pink slices garnished with grilled star fruit and bok choy, crispy polenta fries and a rich sauce made with tropical fruit sangria. It’s superb.
Desserts are good too, although the first time I came here, I gave up on the chocolate cake. The waiter said it would take “five to seven minutes.” That seemed reasonable, so I ordered it. Twenty minutes later, I asked where it was.
“It will take five to seven minutes.” came the Kafkaesque reply.
(On the way out, I saw people eating small round chocolate cakes and wondered how long they’d had to wait for them.) I had better luck another time, and it was worth the wait-the cake was made with rich dark chocolate and garnished with sesame tuiles and glazed bananas. The poached pear is also first-rate, served with a delicate lychee mousse and lychee purée.
Vela also functions as a cocktail lounge, and it’s the first restaurant I’ve heard of with hydraulic tables that can be raised or lowered like the French automobile, Citroën. Early in the evening, when you’re expected to sit up properly for your meal, the tables are 30 inches high. Later on, they’re lowered to 22 inches as (according to the press release) “late-night diners segue into a more loungy mode.” More likely they’re slumped down, head on the table, after that one caipirinha too many.