Bossa Nova review

The cafe is decorated with with thousands of fluttering 'wish ribbons' (right).
The cafe is decorated with with thousands of fluttering 'wish ribbons' (right). Photo: Chris Hopkins

156 Elgin St Carlton, VIC 3053

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Opening hours Tue-Sun 8am-4pm
Features Licensed
Prices Cheap (mains under $20)
Payments eftpos, AMEX, Visa, Mastercard
Phone 0423 146 157

I saw Brazilian cafe Bossa Nova's food before I walked in. A waiter carried a tray across Elgin Street - fried egg jiggling, rice steaming, beans gleaming, a suggestion of bossa nova in his step - to the hungry hairdresser opposite. Bossa Nova may have been open only two months but it's been embraced by its Carlton neighbourhood and by Brazilians in Melbourne.

Come here during the week and it's locals and students including, perhaps, a Portuguese study group saying "bom dia" with L-plate glee. Boogie in on the weekends and it's more of a fiesta with Sao Paulo expats proving that caipirinha cocktails work just fine with brunch.

Bossa Nova is owned by Gabriel Gebaile, who first came to Melbourne on a high school exchange and ended up staying. Along with his wife Gabriela, a UX designer, they've sourced family recipes to create a delicious, homely dose of Brazil, complete with thousands of fluttering "wish ribbons", a grocery section devoted to goods that make expat South Americans teary: pickled "kiss peppers" shaped like tiny pears, cassava flour, guarana – remember guarana?! – and black beans.

Coxinha stuffed with cream cheese and chicken.
Coxinha stuffed with cream cheese and chicken. Photo: Chris Hopkins

The small eat-in menu stars lovingly made classics and every dish has a story. The coxinha is a snack food that young folk inhale after nightclubbing and older people might nibble at brunch. A kind of teardrop-shaped croquette, shredded chicken is mixed with cream cheese (Brazilian style, which is oozier and bitier than Aussie cream cheese), encased in a flour dough shell, then crumbed and fried. It's crunchy, oozy comfort food.

Feijoada is the definitive Brazilian dish, in essence a pork and bean stew, but prepared with countless regional variations. Bossa Nova's version is a loose, mild but compelling black bean casserole with pork meat, pancetta and mild chorizo. It's usual for feijoada to be accompanied by orange slices to cut through the richness; this one includes orange in the stew as well to lighten it up a bit.

Rice, kale and tomato salsa jostle on the plate, along with farofa, toasted cassava flour. If you're not used to Brazilian food, it can seem odd to have a pile of dry flour on your plate. Think of it as you might croutons: sprinkle it into the feijoada, or spoon the stew over it. There are no rules but many paths to satisfaction.

Feijoada (bean and pork stew).
Feijoada (bean and pork stew). Photo: Chris Hopkins

Moqueca is a seafood stew from the northern Amazon region, made here with barramundi and red-tinged Brazilian palm oil. A balanced, spiced coconut curry base is filled out with white, brown and red onion, capsicum, tomatoes and fish trimmings. It's amped up with chillies, including the gorgeous "kiss pepper". This is a beautiful dish, served with rice and toasted flour.

It's compulsory to save room for sweets. Gabriela's aunty has a cake shop in Sao Paulo and the dessert recipes are hers, including ridiculously moist bombocado, a heavenly coconut custard pastry.

Brazilian carrot cake couldn't be further from the Melbourne cafe staple. More like a carrot-infused sponge, it's orange, light and fluffy with a fine crumb and topped with brigadeiro sauce, a runny version of Brazilian chocolate fudge. The combination of carrot and chocolate is typically Brazilian and decidedly fabulous.

The carrot cake with chocolate fudge sauce.
The carrot cake with chocolate fudge sauce. Photo: Chris Hopkins

Bossa Nova is lively and warm-hearted. If you're Brazilian, you probably already know about it. If you're not, you can look forward to falling in love with the spirit and flavours of Brazil when you bossa nova your way in.

Rating: Three and a half stars (out of five)