the underground gourmet
"We export 50 percent of the coffee in the world," says Katia Santana, a native Brazilian, "but we don't have good marketing." Until now. What Juan Valdez has done for his Colombia, Santana intends to do for her country; she's already off to a great start, judging by the laptop-toting regulars who congregate at Brasil Coffee House, her cheerful new café in Hunters Point, Queens. Santana's family owns a coffee business in Minas Gerais, and she's obviously steeped in caffeine culture. One wall bears a mural of an 1836 plantation, brought to three-dimensional life in a scale model beside it. Wooden plaques tell "The Story of Coffee," including the famous episode involving an Ethiopian goatherd and his dancing flock (they weren't drinking decaf). The congenial staff wear plantation hats and happily dispense samples of passion-fruit and espresso smoothies, both of which are best enjoyed with unfailingly fresh Brazilian snacks like flaky chicken pasteles and soft coxinhas, or croquettes. Salads, homemade flan, and buttery coffee cake provide plenty of sustenance, but for a real taste of what Santana calls "home food"-meat, in other words-head next door to Fast and Delicious, her new takeout annex devoted to the inherently Brazilian art of coal-fire barbecue. Churrasco of top sirloin ($14.95) is deeply flavorful and tender enough to cut with a plastic knife (though it's served with a real one if you dine in), and the kitchen excels at daily stew specials culminating in Saturday's lavish feijoada ($12.95), the black-bean-and-meat extravaganza that many consider Brazil's national dish, and perhaps the second-best use of its indigenous beans. ROBIN RAISFELD
Brasil Coffee House
48-19 Vernon Boulevard, Queens
object of desire
Breaking the Mold
You don't normally associate Jell-O with Greenmarket strawberries and champagne. But for his strawberry-and-champagne terrine, Veritas's Francisco J. Migoya eschews mini-marshmallows and banana slices in favor of sheet gelatin, puréed local strawberries, and bubbly from the restaurant's prodigious supply. He dabs the plate with strawberry coulis and basil chiffonade, and tops this wonderfully cool, subtly sweet-and miraculously unrubbery-dessert with sweetened crème fraîche, Cool Whip being rare in these parts.
43 East 20th Street
After attending the Culinary Institute of America, Ayse Dizioglu was toiling away in the relative obscurity of a Wall Street catering kitchen when she threw in the towel. What she really wanted was her own bakery, a place where she could see customers enjoying the fruits (and fruit tarts) of her labor. She found two like-minded chefs, both refugees from high-volume restaurants, to help her run Polka Dot Cake Studio, a custom-cake bakery with a retail shop and a cozy, home-kitchen vibe. The brick-walled space is painted a shade of white called "vanilla ice cream" and furnished with light wood, wicker baskets, and cookbooks, plus marble café tables and a display case that should be fully stocked by August 24 with caramel-swirl cheesecakes, tirami su cups, and individual coconut cakes (pictured).
Polka Dot Cake Studio
312 Bleeker Street
Christmas in August
We don't usually think about marrons glacés, the French candied chestnuts traditionally devoured at Christmas, until the Harry and David catalolgues start arriving by the dozen, or at least until Destiny's Child shows up for the Rockefeller Center tree lighting. But La Maison du Chocolat's marron glacé ice cream ($3.50 per scoop, served in a cone or cup) has put us in a festive mood early this year. The swank shop's most popular flavor is ultrarich and smooth, with a sophisiticated burnt-rum-infused sweetness, and is studded with chopped pieces of the sugar-glazed nuts. It puts to shame those eggnog-flavored ice creams that pop up during the holidays.
La Maison du Chocolat
30 Rockefeller Plaza, on 49th Street
1018 Madison Avenue, near 78th Street
Bustling during the day and dead at night, Madison and 41st, according to former Oceana chef-partner Rick Moonen, is "a hard neighborhood for destination dining." He arrived at that conclusion when he started retooling the Library Hotel restaurant, formerly known as Vigneti and recently rechristened Branzini (a project that should occupy him until he opens RM with the same partners next month). Moonen's strategy to lure his lunch crowd back at night: After 8:30 p.m., he pares his all-day Mediterranean menu down to an appealing assortment of tapaslike small plates, like a bracingly dressed arugula-and-endive salad, a meaty trio of oil-drizzled grilled sardines, cheese-dusted risotto croquettes, and prosciutto-wrapped figs with Gorgonzola, each helpfully paired with a wine.
299 Madison Avenue, at 41st Street
best of the week
They're not just from the bayou: August is crayfish month in Sweden, too.
Aquavit puts the tasty critters into everything from duck stuffing to ice
cream (August 19 to 25); Ulrika's sticks to traditional accompaniments of
dill bread, cheese, beer, and aquavit (August 17 to 24).
13 West 54th Street
115 East 60th Street
Call 212-557-3340 to reserve