When I phoned Carnaval for a reservation I was told it was fully booked, so I decided to settle for some tapas in the main-floor lounge. But I was surprised by how stark and uninviting it looked, and how uncomfortable and unwieldy the high bar stools and tables were. Those stools defeated me, which is when I had a second surprise. Would I like a table upstairs? the hostess asked (and no questions about a reservation), and having lost the battle with the stools, I certainly did.
The restaurant is accessible by either stairs or elevator, which open into a cramped entryway that faces the central grilling station. The first thing you notice is the smoke; it will probably be the last thing, too, since your clothes may smell of it after you leave. During your meal the smoke that wafts your way can give you a hoarse throat, and if the smoke doesn't do it, the need to shout above the noise level might.
Apart from the wall of windows along the length of the room, with gorgeous views of the river, most of the decor -- and most of the colour -- was in the multi-coloured plastic strips undulating along the ceiling, intended (I assume) to represent carnival streamers.
The fixed $39 menu offers a variety of sides and meats but, although there's plenty to eat, little of it rises above the adequate. If that. The best was a starter basket of miniature empanadas, polenta sticks and grilled triangles of naan, with a spicy and delicious black bean dip -- one piece per person only, and if I had known what was to come I would have asked for more.
But we were pacing ourselves -- a mistake, we began to suspect, with the first few sides. Certainly we'd expected more from the owners of Hermanos and Corrientes than a so-so chickpea salad; some blah steamed veggies and the roasted yams and potatoes (more blah), but not one of the more interesting-sounding items. And when we asked about them we were told that only larger parties got all of them to start with.
All we had to do was ask, we were told. So we asked for hearts of palm salad, which turned out to be mostly cucumbers with a few squishy pieces of palm. We asked for panzanella, but the bread cubes had turned to mush and the tomatoes were flavourless, and both -- like all the salads sampled -- came in bland dressings. Not one of the other sides came automatically, and we had to ask for each of them -- again, and again, and, in some cases, yet again.
Tops among them were the wonderfully crisp fries. Second best, the feijoada, a stew of black beans with beef and pork, but with no bread to sop up the soupy sauce. The mashed potatoes might have done the job, but didn't arrive until we had pretty well finished the stew.
Shortly after our initial few sides, the cavalcade of traditionally dressed gauchos began, bearing huge skewers of grilled meats. A round card is set on each table -- green on one side, to keep them coming, red on the other, to ask them to hold off for a while. By then, our small, dessert-size plates were crowded with debris from our tasted, but mostly uneaten, sides, but it wasn't until we'd almost finished dinner that we were brought clean plates.
Surprisingly, for a churrascarias (i.e. steakhouse), the beefs were the unkindest cuts of all. Everything was chewy -- the sirloin cap, the top sirloin, the bottom sirloin, and even the bacon-wrapped tenderloin -- and only the cap had flavour (flank steak was listed but unavailable). Some skewers had respectable amounts of meat, but most that came to our table looked like tail-end remnants of bigger cuts. The meat is carved in skinny slivers, not slices, but although you could always ask for more, the idea of generosity doesn't spring to mind.
A leg of lamb was passable, but the best meats of the evening were low-end items. True, one could compose a delicious meal with them but, on the other hand, $39 would be one heck of a price for even a great, spicy pork sausage, juicy chicken legs and moist pork shoulder (far better than the dry, flavourless pork sirloin cap).
Reservations (we were told) allow two hours of table time, but our two hours were almost up and there was still no sign of certain items. Where were the pork ribs?, we asked, and were told it would take more than half an hour to finish cooking them. But lo! they turned up less than 10 minutes later (had they been trying to ease us out?). In any case, the wee bits of bone with barely a shred of oversalted meat weren't worth the wait. We were also offered the single wee blob of bison knuckle at the bottom of the skewer -- just the one, an inedible tangle of fat and sinew at that. Finally there were slices from what was left of a bison roast that was almost impossible to cut, much less chew.
A slab of grilled Brazilian cheese was burnt, rubbery and unpleasant. The cinnamon-dusted fresh pineapple is also carved at table, but the first slice was cardboard-dry and unpleasantly overdosed with cinnamon. I asked for a slice from the centre and our server looked at me blankly, as though the request was incomprehensible. I explained again what I wanted and did get an inside slice which, although as skimpy as everything else had been, was the finish we needed after all that meat.
Well, actually, we weren't really finished. The dessert list isn't offered (possibly on the assumption no one would have room) but I was there on duty, so we soldiered on through a good house-made vanilla bean ice cream ($5) and a perfunctory stack of dense sponge cake with whiskey-soaked pineapple slices, which tasted only sour ($8).
Service was consistently pleasant but only intermittently attentive. The wine list is well selected and the classic Brazilian caipirinhas -- made tableside with cachaca (a sugar cane liquor), lime juice and sugar -- is wonderful. But I didn't get it until I was well into my meal and, at a steep $11, it was a lot shorter than the huge bowlful I remember from Hermanos.
270 Waterfront Dr., 204-505-0945
Two and a half stars out of five