Selling Brazil by the Pound

Brazilian buffet

Libra By The Pound, Culver City CA

Libra, the Brazilian youngster in Culver City

Libra, the Brazilian youngster in Culver City

When I received an invitation to try Marcelo Ahn's new Brazilian eatery, it was described as "Brazilian buffet". I couldn't get the image out of my head of a mutant cross between Fogo de Chao and Golden Corral or a Souper Salad with animals staked out over flames behind the sneeze shields. Fortunately for my sanity and my stomach, my fears were unfounded. Once inside the modern, gleaming eatery I was introduced to Marcelo who told me that he wanted to introduce people to the way people eat in his native São Paulo. As I stood near the front door speaking with him, my eyes caught a shallow sink with a hinged steel spigot next to where the plates are dispensed. Marcelo explained that in Brazil, sinks are placed at the front so that patrons can wash their hands prior to eating, a custom that seems to be lost to Americans. I was grateful to find out it was not there to wash your dish prior to use (not that I thought that, even for a second). The "buffet counter" runs the length of the restaurant, and there is an incredible variety of food that gets rotated on a regular basis. Brazilian cuisine is heavily influenced by European, African and indigenous cultures, and so I am told that it is not unusual to find items such as potato salad, couscous and insalata caprese on the menu. The food is served by the pound, and Marcelo states that the healthy amount of food intake is a decent mix of meat and buffet items weighing in at about a pound and a half. Latin scholars will have no problem linking the name (Libra) with its English translation (pound) and its abbreviation (lb.) which is an integral part of the logo and found throughout the restaurant, but I'm sure they still get asked what the restaurant has to do with astrology. As much as I am a big fan of a well-made potato salad, my unusual tastes lead me more towards poke salad, but the food was presented so incredibly beautifully that I had to try their take on some of the "normal" selections. The food was artistically arranged in clay bowls, and it was so attractive that I wanted to deliver a sharp smack at the back of the head to anybody who simply heaped the food on their plate. I would have done it, too, I swear.
A jumble of flavor on my plate

A jumble of flavor on my plate

As I carefully arranged my selections on the plate I started to wonder where they hid the meat in this joint. I was also surprised that trays were available at the end of the buffet line rather than up front where the John Blutarskis of this world won't leave a Hansel and Gretel trail of food morsels. Just past the case filled with beverages (including Guaraná Antarctica, a popular Brazilian soda) and deserts, cordoned off by a glass shield was Meat City. Selections of meat (which included Brazilian linguica, smoked sausage and chicken) were being cooked in what can only be described as an inverted foosball table from Hell, their fatty lifeblood dripping into the greasy depths below. Picanha (Brazilian top sirloin cap) and tri-tip were cooked to order on the grill, and the meat was placed on a separate plate. I had to try them all, but if your only acceptable vision of a Brazilian restaurant is the Americanized churrascaria with smiling waiters slicing never-ending quantities of lanced meat items onto your eager plate, you will be disappointed. Shame on you for being so closed-minded anyway.
Score! Linguica wins!

Score! Linguica wins!

I desperately searched for the oxtail and potato, but apparently the coach didn't put him in that night, one of the drawbacks of a rotating selection. I sat down to savor the work of art I created and looked forward to some of the more unusual items. The little, square sausage tarts were eggy bites with little crumbles of sausage suspended inside; the polenta with ragout was firm and served in geometric blocks. I really enjoyed their take on collard greens - rather than a glop of leaves, it was finely shredded and quickly sautéed with garlic and olive oil - I almost mistook it for seaweed. An oddity that won me over was the mashed yucca. I have had yucca Caribbean and Colombian-style, fried in chunks, but there is no way that the uninitiated would be able to tell the version they served (made with cream and butter) from creamy mashed potatoes. Another South and Central American staple, plantains found their way onto my plate in caramelized form - freshly made (as a peek in the kitchen proved). Although the tri-tip was decent, it paled in comparison to the dark and juicy picanha (which I would have gone back for again if there wasn't so much food). The chicken was moist and crispy on the outside, the sausage and linguica hot and flavorful.
Carol Ahn, chef at Libra By The Pound

Carol Ahn, chef at Libra By The Pound

I had an opportunity to sit with Cordon Bleu Chef Carol Ahn (sister of Marcelo) for a while and ask her about other dishes. She said that they are trying to source the unusual and traditional ingredients for the slow-cooked black bean and pork feijão tropeiro stew; her description sounded so good I demanded to be put on e-mail alert when they started serving it. I commended her on sticking to traditional preparations, and enjoyed discussing Brazilian cuisine. She did, however, politely decline my offer of hormigas culonas (which my sister-in-law just brought back from Colombia and I had pocketed along as a snack). Libra has been open for just over three weeks now and although there's some concern that Angelenos may be too accustomed to the churrascaria format to accept it, I think they'll do well once word spreads about the quality, taste and presentation of the food. Maybe a 130-foot tall concrete and soapstone Jesus on the roof would help. Then again, maybe not. NOTE: This meal was a press review event Libra By The Pound 3833 Main Street Culver City, CA 90232-2619 GPS Coordinates:  34°1'28.73"N 118°23'40.57"W See more pictures from Val's meal at Libra in Culver City, CA Download a coupon for 15% off dinner during May 2010 and enter to win dinner for 2 at Libra By The Pound on our "Stuff (Merchandise and Freebies)" page
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5 Responses to Selling Brazil by the Pound

  1. val says:

    We had 2 winners in our Dinner For 2 Giveaway contest – I liked their comments on what they found interesting, so I’ve re-posted them here:

    john schmiederer
    “I was definitely intrigued by all the food described. At the top of the list, however, would be the Picanha, simply because “dark and juicy” sounds exceptionally good to me right now. Also the “little, square sausage tarts” sound quite delectable, as I am a sucker for both sausages and tarts [insert off-color remark here]. Truly, though, I plan on trying as many different foodstuffs that I can stuff into my mouth.”

    Mark Liberman
    “I was intrigued by 3 dishes:
    – Mash Yucca: I’d be interested in how such a bland sounding food can taste good
    – Collard Greens: Shredded with garlic and olive oil sounds great
    – Fried plantains: Always a favorite.
    I’d definitely give Libra a try”

  2. Mark says:

    After our visit to Libra, I have an overwhelming feeling that if I were a Los Angeles restaurantier, I’d keeping a close eye on Libra because they will be looking to get out of their lease very shortly. The reason is that while the decor is first-rate (modern, trendy, and inviting) and, some of the food choices were quite good, others were sub-par, and the service and overall theme left something to be desired.

    Right near the entrance is a sink for washing up, which I proceeded to get my 2 young kids (ages 7 and 5) to do while I stared in the direction of the few available staff members with a blank look that said, “Help, I’m not sure how this works.” Finally (after a few minutes) the hostess approached and asked us for our meat orders (which we gave). As we walked by the food dishes on the way to the meat counter, there appeared to be some nice choices. With so much to choose from, my wife and I selected a little serving of 10 to 12 different items. The kids stuck with their favorites of rice and beans, hearts of palm salad, and cheese.

    A few of the dishes were quite tasty: Chicken stroganoff (creamy and flavorful), garlic collard greens, macaroni and chicken, and the garlic chicken from the barbeque. On the other hand, the tri-tip and the other beef cut (which I have forgotten the name of), were very dry and lacked much flavor (even though we ordered medium rare). If the Brazilian sausage was a true representation of the best that Brazil has to offer by way of sausage, I would suggest they exit the sausage making business immediately. It was dry and lacked any real zest. The rest of the dishes seemed pretty common: brie cheese, beet salad, potato salad, and the steamed yucca, all tasting pretty ordinary (not bad, but not exotic or distinctive).

    Finally, my kids were still hungry so I brought them back in line to get a bit more rice and beans. Remember, these are 7 and 5 year olds, and it was seconds after eating a fair amount. The bill for this follow-up order was $7.99! That gives you an idea of the price. Although my wife’s and my orders were comped due to winning two free meals from Trippyfood.com, the cashier said it would have cost $52. For that price, I don’t think the buffet concept works. I think a traditional restaurant with a menu, a waitstaff, and wine or beer (of which there was none), would work much better.

    We arrived at about 6:00 on a Saturday night, and were pleasantly surprised to see the downtown Culver City area was already bustling with lots of shoppers and diners. But, Libra was empty when we arrived. During our hour there, 2 other parties came and had food, while at least 3 other parties came, looked, walked through the line, and left!

    Despite rooting for this restaurant (for the nice staff and unique concept), I just can’t help but think that they will all be looking for new jobs very soon.

  3. val says:

    Mark,

    Thanks for the feedback. You didn’t say whether they had the oxtail and potatoes or the feijão tropeiro, but I still would like to try those. Sounds like your experience was a mixed bag, but I’m pleased to hear you found some dishes to enjoy there.

  4. John says:

    Ok, so here’s my two cents on Libra (technically 4 cents since both my girlfriend Val and I went):
    Overall we really like it. We weren’t exactly a fan of the ambiance (it seemed very sterile and unwelcoming), however the food was great. We both really like the idea of tasting different things, so the ability to sample lots of different food items was great. The variety itself was probably Val’s favorite part of the meal.

    I enjoyed the various yuca I had, however, that was mostly because of the Brazilian condiments I put on it; the fried okra was also quite good. There was the oxtail and potatoes dish, and I did like the oxtail a great deal — very tender, fell off the bone. Val said it reminded her of corned beef. The ribs at the end I wasn’t such a fan of — they seemed a bit dry, however, the ‘top sirloin’ (I guess that was the Picanha) was absolutely delicious. And the chicken was pretty good too.
    We also went for 4 of the desserts:
    1) a chocolate ball that was the equivalent of chocolate frosting covered in chocolate sprinkles — I liked it, but I may as well have been eating frosting (people in the know call this brigadeiro, apparently)
    2) a raspberry bar — very jammy and delicious
    3) gingersnap cookie — very moist and also delicious
    4) butterscotch blondie — like a butterscotch cookie in bar form
    And I washed my meal down with a lovely Diet Guarana and Val thoroughly enjoyed her ginger-limeade.
    The total “bill” if we had paid for it came to about $40, which I thought was reasonable. Again, I think the variety and quality is worth the slightly higher price. We did kind of pile more on the plate than we would if we were paying for it, so if we went back, it might not be as expensive. And yes, we might actually go back.

    The only thing I didn’t quite understand was the different pricing tiers…it made me think if I put my meat on a separate plate I would end up saving money, but then perhaps not with the weight of the plate….I don’t know — that much was a little confusing.

    Overall, two thumbs up.

  5. val says:

    John, it’s interesting to read that they had ribs as a meat offering, as I was under the impression that they were keeping the meat options the same. Sounds like you had better luck with the meat, but from what Mark wrote it sounds like they may have pre-cooked it when he was there. I also thought their picanha was outstanding, and although I didn’t have the brigadeiro on my visit, I did have it at Ta Bom (the Brazilian food truck); I can see where you’d liken it to a ball of chocolate frosting. The only thing that troubles me is your description of the gingersnap as moist (all ginger and no snap), but being a big fan of gingerbread, that’s OK. I have to get back out there and try the oxtail…

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