N.B. As of August 2020 Pau Brasil has reopened.
I so wanted to like Pau Brasil, probably more than any other place I’ve reviewed so far. So many people have urged me to try it, and on the approach up Mount Pleasant I could understand why – it’s a beautiful, two-storey, whitewashed building with vibrant cornflower-blue windows and doors, the Brazilian flag flying from the first floor balcony. I’d defy anybody to walk past it and not feel like going in, and on the day I visited the tables and chairs outside made it look even more inviting. It seems like it’s been dropped into that neighbourhood from a parallel dimension, only a few doors down from Whitley Street with its parade of takeaways and convenience stores.
Inside, the welcome was every bit as friendly as the façade. We took the table next to the balcony in the nice, airy upstairs room – it’s nothing fancy or special, mismatched furniture and basic tables, but a lovely bright space where I could easily imagine whiling away some time eating Brazilian food. The owner brought the blackboard with the daily specials and we sipped on peach and lemon tea, our ice cubes melting at breakneck speed, while we tried to decide what we wanted. And, as with all appealing menus, we wanted everything.
Pau Brasil offers a range of petiscos or salgados (the Portuguese equivalent of tapas) and they all looked good, so on the advice of the waitress we had the platter, a portion of bite sized petiscos to share. She cautioned us that it was on the small side, which wasn’t really true – whatever you might think of Pau Brasil you can’t fault them for their generosity.
When they arrived, they were the first indication that eating here might not be an unalloyed delight. The best of them was the salt cod fishcake – beautifully crisp outside, soft inside and nicely balanced between the salt cod and the potato used to bulk it out. If I’d just had these, and the surprisingly pleasant glass of white table wine I washed them down with (a snip at £3), it would have been a lovely afternoon snack – but the other petiscos weren’t in the same league.
The beef reminded me of a Lebanese kibbeh, nicely coarse but on the bland side. The chicken dumpling was a bit like a miniature Findus Crispy Pancake, with an orangey crispy coating filled with minced chicken which was perfectly okay but not exactly exciting. The prawn rissole was the same but filled with a sort of mayonnaise-y prawn dollop: pink, gooey, lacking in flavour. But the oddest thing was what the petiscos looked like: there was something about their uniformity of shape that made me wonder if they’d been made fresh on the premises. The chilli sauce they came with, however, was home made and had quite a kick. The tiniest dab was enough to give a whack of heat – I was glad that the waitress warned me that it was hot to save me from doing myself harm.
In the spirit of trying as many different things as possible we attacked the main courses from both ends of the menu, trying the lighter and heavier options. What can I say about the banana, cheese and cinnamon toasted sandwich? Put it this way: if you read that description and thought “I like the sound of that” then you’d probably like it, if you think it sounds wrong then it won’t be the dish for you. It was exactly the sum of its parts with no element of surprise. Decent, again, but the cheese was a bit too mild to balance out the sweet banana and the cinnamon wasn’t quite strong enough to make the whole thing interesting. The bread was plain white sliced and the whole thing had the overall feel of something I would make at home if I was in a hurry and short of ingredients.
Feijoada is the national dish of Brazil, so I felt it would be wrong not to try Pau Brasil’s version. It wasn’t going to win any beauty competitions – half the plate covered in brown mush, a quarter covered with rice and a quarter covered in greens, a beige pie chart – but I figured that wasn’t the important thing about a hearty stew like this. The problem was that it tasted largely how it looked. Well, that and the meat: hunting for bits of pork turned out to be quite a challenge. Most pieces were thick with gelatinous fat, very few were fat free and there weren’t a huge amount of them in the first place.
The rest of it was pleasant enough, but not very strongly flavoured. The beans weren’t bad, and the fat and some smokiness had at least made it into the sauce. The greens – salty, shredded and with just a little give remaining – were delicious, easily the best bit. But at the end I looked at the pile of wobbly leftovers at the edge of my plate and felt that, for ten pounds, it just wasn’t good enough.
Really wanting to like Pau Brasil meant I also really wanted to give them a chance to make things right with dessert; normally, when a main is that disappointing I would just settle up and leave. Pasteis de nata almost did the trick – delicious, warm custard in that gorgeous flaky nest of pastry, sweet cinnamon on top. They were quite, quite lovely (and a bargain at £1.30). Again, I could happily go there just for the pasteis, if I lived in the neighbourhood.
The bill came to pretty much thirty pounds, not including service. I spent more than you have to because I wanted to try a wide range of dishes, but as usual you could easily eat here for far less. Service was terrific throughout, to the extent where I started to worry about how to write this review about two minutes after I left.
I’m not going to say that Pau Brasil is a bad restaurant. It is a lovely place, staffed by friendly people, offering something completely different – proudly independent and clearly doing very well. It just happens to be a restaurant I can’t see myself visiting again. If I lived nearby, on a weekend afternoon I might grab one of those upstairs tables and have a coffee and a pastel, or some of those salt cod fishcakes, and read a book, maybe: I could imagine doing that. But too much of the food just wasn’t to my taste, and however nice a room is, however great the service is, the food is always going to be centre stage. If I want meat, sauce, rice and greens I can’t imagine I’d ever pick Pau Brasil over, for example, Perry’s (or even Shed, on Fridays). If I wanted a toasted sandwich I’d make my way to My Kitchen (or Shed, again).
Sometimes I really regret choosing to give restaurants a rating, and this is one of those times. I’m sure by now you’ve probably made a decision about whether Pau Brasil sounds like your sort of thing. The mark is an irrelevance. And you’ve probably also made a decision about whether it’s my sort of thing, and you’re probably right about that. All I can say is that on this occasion it’s given with a heavier heart than usual, because this is as close as I’ve come so far to wishing I could overlook disappointing food. Anyway, I’m sure no score from me will disappoint them half as much as that 7-1 scoreline, just under a month but almost a lifetime ago.
Pau Brasil – 6.1
89 Mount Pleasant, RG1 2TF