Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The Marigold Miracle (Malagueta, 25-35 36th Avenue)

Fresh-cut marigolds and daisies on the table seem a small miracle in mid-January, but at Malagueta, a Brazilian restaurant on the corner of 36th Avenue and Crescent Street, it was more a humble and inconspicuous token of kindness, like holding the elevator or offering a tissue to a watery-eyed subway stranger. On a cold Tuesday evening, on the far frontier of what we've decided to call Astoria, it was a much appreciated gesture.

The same subtle spirit of discretion was palpable in all things at Malagueta -- the subdued lighting, the intimate yet uncrowded cluster of small white-clothed tables, the guileless mix of contemporary paintings and framed Coney Island caricature drawings hanging on the muted walls, the proprietor (okay, our waiter, but his quiet pride suggested he was the master of all we saw) refraining from forcing a wine list on us. It was as if the place was aware of teetering on the edge of pretension -- there were banquettes, for goodness' sake -- and was taking deliberate care to skirt the charge. That the Cranberries, of all bands, played over the sound system didn't hurt either. We will say no more of that, other than it prompted in us some quizzical looks.

On the waiter's recommendation we ordered for appetizers acaraje -- described on the menu as "a mashed black-eyed peas cake with a spicy cream of fish and dried shrimp and sautéed shrimp" -- and the soup of the day, a piquant chicken and corn chowder. We weren't sure if it was in keeping with good table manners to share a single soup spoon, so we may have inadvertently scandalized some of the other diners, but the soup was delicious and we regret nothing.

Our entrees were Peito de Pato, a sautéed duck breast in a tequila and lime marinade, and Moqueca de Camarão, a shrimp stew (as if we hadn't had enough shrimp already, but one of us believes she is developing an allergy to shellfish and wants to load up before she can eat them no more). The duck defied easy description: At times it had the texture of a hot dog, albeit one that was exquisitely dense with meaty, slightly smoky flavor, but then you would come upon a bite that was a touch more sinewy, like a tender morsel chicken, to remind you that this was not ground up meat reconstituted. This was no sausage, all right. The shrimp stew was basic and not as surprising as the duck -- large shrimp in a coconuty broth dotted with peppers and onion -- but flavorful enough to make us soak up every last drop of broth with the accompanying rice mound.

Forced by full bellies to skip dessert, we accepted the mix of mints and root beer barrels that came with the check with delight. We looked back at the gleaming icicle lights and drawn curtains of Malagueta, gave a nod to its integrity, and wandered home in a cozy waterfowl-crustacea haze.

Price: Under $20 for entrees
Will we go again? The kind of gem that keeps us going through mediocre pizzerias. Happily.

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