Everything about Ipanema is done on a grand scale. From the moment you walk through the door, you have a sense that this is going to be an adventure. And that’s exactly the feeling the restaurant’s creators sought to inspire.
“When you come here, we want to provide you with an extreme experience,” says Karlo Solyom, general manager and executive chef. “We want you to feel overwhelmed.”
From the lofty ceiling and the oversized, upholstered seating in the lounge area to the unique dragonfly lights on the walls, there isn’t anything understated about Ipanema. Even the plates are oversized. As an authentic Brazilian steakhouse—or churrascaria, as it’s known in that country—this is a restaurant with an entire culture behind it.
The concept of the Brazilian steakhouse didn’t really gain traction in the United States until about five years ago, notes Darren Tristano, executive vice president of Technomic, Inc., a food industry consulting and research firm based in Chicago.
“We’d been tracking it since around 2000, but five years ago was when the press started picking up on the trend. That’s when people started saying, ‘Wow, what is this?’ Given the size of the investment and the tradition around the churrascaria and the gauchos, not just anybody can open one.”
Ipanema’s opening in Ocala last December created an immediate buzz.
“My first experience at a Brazilian steakhouse was in Atlanta,” recalls Jaye Baillie, president and CEO of the Ocala/Marion County Chamber of Commerce. “Needless to say, when I found out Ipanema was opening, I was delighted. I can’t say enough about the service, food, and ambiance. It’s a special treat for us to have a restaurant of that caliber here in our community.”
Let me say up front that I am not a serious carnivore. At Thanksgiving, it’s not turkey I look forward to most. For that reason, I wasn’t sure I could do justice to dining at Ipanema. But after my own personal experience, I can assure you that Ipanema offers something for every taste.
The salad bar—and I use those two words hesitantly—is incredible. Here is where you’ll discover many of the delightful influences from other cuisines. In addition to the enormous peel-and-eat cold shrimp, you’ll enjoy delicate asparagus, stuffed cucumber, taboulleh, Brazilian chicken salad, as well as potato salad, Kalamata olives, hearts of palm, artichoke hearts and bottoms, and mushrooms. There are numerous cold salads—some quite unusual, such as the extremely tasty celery and gorgonzola summer mix salad, the delicately seasoned Italian corn salad, and an excellent Mediterranean pasta salad. There is also an impressive selection of cold meats and cheeses to indulge in.
“We want to take you on a tour of South Brazil with influences from other countries,” notes Karlo. “Some things we offer are not 100 percent Brazilian because it is a ‘melting pot’ country with so many influences. Our food is very diverse and we portray the same thing at Ipanema. We feature dishes with influences from many countries besides Brazil, including Germany, Russia, Italy, Greece, Lebanon, and others.”
To complete your meal, Ipanema offers a full bar and has a substantial wine list carefully coordinated to complement the menu. The patron-friendly menu suggests types of wine to order with each of the different meats, and your servers are also happy to offer recommendations.
Karlo encouraged us to try the Traditional Caipirnha, which is made with Brazilian Cachaca, an imported liquor reminiscent of rum and made from sugar cane. There are several flavored Caipirinha specialty drinks, but my friend and I both raved over the traditional version, a refreshing combination of tart lime and sweetness.
If you enjoy being in control, you’ll love the fact that you call the shots when it comes to meat. When you first sit down, a server will introduce you to the concept of “Rodizio” dinner service. There are 11 different Brazilian cuts of meat and poultry, each grilled rotisserie style on skewers over an open charcoal fire, which is visible from the dining room. When you order the Rodizio dinner, your meal includes as much of these meats as you care to eat, as well as the salad bar and side dishes.
Because you’ll likely want to start your meal with the salad bar, a server explains that you should leave the cardboard coaster next to your plate with the “no” side facing up. This means that you don’t wish the gauchos, those gentlemen walking about bearing skewers laden with grilled meats, to visit your table yet.
As soon as you’re ready to start with the meal’s main course, a server will bring you another clean plate. Pay a visit to the hot chaffing dishes for your choice of sides, such as mashed potatoes, steamed rice with black beans and tenderloin tips, and wheat spaghetti. When you return to your table, simply flip over your coaster so the “yes” side is up, and voila! Almost instantaneously, you will be visited by gauchos, the men with the meat.
Whether you’re in the mood for sirloin, prime rib, filet mignon, beef ribs, lamb chops, chicken wrapped in bacon, Brazilian pork sausage, pork tenderloin parmesan, or pork ribs—or all the above—you’re in for a treat. Some of the meats are already cut into individual portions, which the gaucho neatly slides onto your plate. Others are carved tableside.
One of the things we liked best about Ipanema was that service never wavered. The management has set it up so that every table actually has multiple servers, or rather a team of servers. If a server sees that you need anything, you’ll get it immediately. The service is impeccable, but never pushy or overly attentive.
Though I would never have dreamed I’d have room for dessert, we decided to share one of the tempting creations on the menu and asked a server to make a recommendation. We were delighted with his choice of the Berried-n-Cream Cheese Martini, a luscious concoction of fresh berries topped with house-made cream cheese ice cream and berry coulis served in a martini glass. There were at least 10 other dessert options and I made a note to try something chocolate on my next visit.
All the stories I’d heard were right on target about Ipanema being an “overwhelming” dining adventure. The way I see it, being overwhelmed in a good way makes for one of the best restaurant experiences one can have.
Ipanema’s Entry Lounge
An Ipanema Strategy
Since all that food can be a bit overwhelming, here are 7 suggestions for making your first visit to Ipanema an even more satisfying dining adventure.
1. Take it easy on the bread/appetizer basket—there’s much more to come.
2. Peruse the entire salad bar before you start loading your plate.
3. Take samples of many things instead of big helpings of a few favorites.
4. If you’re not craving meat, opt for the salad bar only. I can guarantee you won’t leave hungry.
5. Don’t be afraid to ask the gauchos for a smaller-than-usual slice. If at all possible, they will accommodate you, but note that some cuts are already in single portions.
6. The gauchos can carve a piece of meat anywhere from rare to well-done, so be sure to ask for your preferred temperature.
7. Pace yourself! Go ahead and flip your “yes/no” coaster back to “no” for a little while if you need to enjoy the meats on your plate without being offered more. Then flip it back to “yes” when you’re ready for the gauchos to visit your table again.
Ipanema Brazilian Steakhouse
2023 S. Pine Avenue, Ocala