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Thursday, September 18, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 51.0° F  Fog/Mist
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The Cabana Room: Feijoada comes to Madison
Moderately priced Brazilian fare hits the spot
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First of all, how do you pronounce "feijoada"? You pronounce it fahge-WAH-da. At least according to our server at the Cabana Room. And she seemed pretty sure of herself.

Second, what the hell is feijoada? Why, it's the national dish of Brazil - at least, of Brazilian peasants. It's a black bean stew, well stocked with, as the menu says, sausages, bacon and meats. And what meats, you ask? Perhaps it's better not to ask. In Brazil, the meats are not exactly the prime cuts of the particular animal, but more of the scraps tossed down by the ruling class to the peasantry. I didn't detect any snouts or feet parts in my feijoada, but there were some pieces in there that I thought best not to ask about. Bottom line, the feijoada was good - thick, rich, hardy, smoky, perfect for a cold winter's evening.

We had been to the acclaimed Samba Brazilian Grill, upstairs, and were awed by its elegance and style. Truly, this is more elegance than Madison deserves. Now we wanted to try its little brother grill downstairs, where elegance still prevails, but feijoada rules and prices are muito barato. (I think that means very inexpensive.)

With theater lighting, black tables and a flaming red wall, this is the most beautiful barato dining I can imagine. The Cabana Room is located in the historic Woman's Building, on Gilman Street, which a group of Madison women activists saved from the developer's ax and Jongyean Lee turned into a splendid downtown dining destination.

How splendid? To begin, how about 34 beers on tap, and dozens more by the bottle? The wine list is just as impressive, but we went with beer on this cold night. There are also specialty cocktails, including Foosie Woo Woo, but a man who drinks his bourbon straight does not order a Foosie Woo Woo.

Four of us started with a dish of crispy calamari, sautéed with ginger, coconut milk, chiles and cilantro, with two dipping sauces. Encouraged, we then split an order of crab cakes, which were playfully spicy, encrusted with crunchy cornmeal and served on a bed of arugula with fresh avocado wedges. A winner.

The other signature dish here, besides feijoada, is Bahia fish stew. When I worked in New York, this was one of my favorite dishes, as served at Cabana Carioca on West 45th Street; the Cabana Room's version compares very well. In a rich and aromatic tomato base, this particular evening's seafood (it can change, according to what's available) included bay scallops, shrimp and red sea bass, all enlivened by chiles and almonds. Another beautiful dish for a cold Wisconsin winter evening. (Actually, it's perfect for lunch, as well, since there is only one menu for both lunch and dinner.)

Another specialty of the house is the cubano, a sandwich brick-pressed on a grill and served with caramelized onions and a goat-and-cream-cheese spread; it comes with a beautiful green salad with a mango vinaigrette and a side dish of chimichurri a marinade and salsa made from olive oil, vinegar, cilantro, parsley, cloves, red chiles and cumin. Chimichurri originated in Argentina, but is now used throughout South and Central America. It adds a delicious kick to any dish, but is essential for the cubanos.

One companion ordered the lamb and goat cheese cubano with homemade pickles, the other the pulled pork cubano, this one slathered in chimichurri with pickled onion. They divided and shared both sandwiches (the restaurant is very nice about splitting dishes) and spent some time in discussing which was better. It seemed to be a tie. Other cubanos include ham and cheese, chicken and bacon, and beef with cabrales, a Spanish cheese. Two other Spanish cheeses available are idiazabel and manchego. And for the confirmed gringo, there is an Angus beef burger.

Instead of having dessert in the Cabana Room, we had a different idea. One of the benefits of evening dining at the Cabana Room is that, after paying the muito barato check, you can wander upstairs, sit in the lounge among the swells, drink coffee, tea, or an after-dinner drink of choice, and listen to the excellent musical entertainment. Which is exactly what we did.

The Samba Grill and the Cabana Room are, together, a fabulous addition to the downtown dining and entertainment scene. Despite the disappointment of one of our group, who complained that the cabana boys never came around with massage oil and hot towels, we had a beautiful and elegant evening at the old Woman's Building. I think Belle La Follette would have liked it, too.

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