Like much of the cuisine of South America, Brazilian cookery never quite caught on in these parts. There were some noble attempts, such as Rio’s in Albany Park, which put out a truly authentic spread for nearly ten years before shutting down in the early 90s. Rio’s drew on Chicago’s small Brazilian community but little more, possibly because the cuisine is too focused on beef for the diet-conscious and the seafoods are usually stewed in coconut milk, which is high in saturated fat.

But Steve Abrams is in love with Rio–the city–and persuaded his partners Tony Marchese and Jeff Tessler that Brazilian was the way to go with the new restaurant they planned. Marchese and Tessler have been in the saloon business for a long time–this is their first restaurant–but Abrams knows the restaurant business well, having spent the last seven years with Lettuce Entertain You. What they came up with is Rhumba, one of the most appealing restaurants to come along in years, though no one would ever really confuse it with the genuine South American article.

It is, rather, a fanciful, mytho-Brazilian setting serving a kind of crossover nuevo Latino cuisine–a bicoastal dining rage just getting under way here–invented by consultant Jamie Leeds, a former Lettuce chef who helped open a Brazilian-style spot in New York called Riodizio, and chef Scott Helm, who’s never been even close to South America.

“Riodizio is really popular. It serves the authentic beef barbecue, tons of meat, but that’s just not something we can do here,” says Helm, who’s worked at Zinfandel and Zaven’s as well as the now closed Jaxx and Cafe Gordon. “So we worked and worked and came up with this menu, which is really inspired by the real thing.”

The place itself is fun without going over the line into design overload. There is a colorful, glass-mosaic-topped bar and television monitors airing Brazilian soap operas and music videos, plus decorative perforated metal wall panels, a high, wood-trimmed ceiling, and exposed brick walls. Even the rest rooms have video monitors. Some rendition of South American music is always on the sound system–not overbearingly loud most of the time–and a changing battery of colored light patterns plays on the walls throughout the evening.

Like other restaurants of its kind, Rhumba offers updated, hands-across-the-borders cookery adapting some of the basic South American ingredients and stylings, but chef Helm has come up with several distinctive items. All the starters are highly recommended. There’s a fine version of cured salmon served with lime and avocado ($5.75) and nice pork ribs crusted with cumin and hints of orange and accompanied by mashed sweet potatoes ($7.75). But even better are the spicy vegetables–eggplant, onion, zucchini, roasted peppers, and chickpeas–wrapped in a thin pastry crust and anointed with a mouth-watering mango, cilantro, and yogurt sauce ($4.50). Also recommended is the coxinha, a small cone of roast chicken and tomatoes in a potato shell seasoned with thyme and dabbed with a toasted cumin sauce ($6.75). Rhumba will make up a sampler platter for $13.95, which is really the way to go.

Among the entrees, most impressive was the meltingly tender skirt steak, served with a beautifully spiced–not hot–tomato-ginger vinaigrette and crisp, thin-sliced curried red-onion rings ($12.75). A succulent beef tenderloin came done perfectly rare as ordered, with a savory crust of blue cheese; it was ringed by a batch of zesty purple mashed potatoes tinged with chipotle peppers and a lush moat of gravy awash with chunks of mild ajicito peppers ($18.25).

The two dishes that didn’t work were the double pork chop ($13.75) and the “jungle spiced” roast chicken ($11.75), both of which had interesting coatings of seasoning but were overdone and surprisingly dry and lifeless.

Back to the winners. Moqueca is a kind of Brazilian bouillabaisse, with fresh and tender chunks of squid and shrimp plus tiny clams and mussels in a beautiful cilantro-and- saffron-spiked broth ($13.25). Just about as good was one of the more authentic items, vatapa–shrimp simmered in a thick bath of coconut milk, which serves as a gravy enhanced by peppers, garlic, coriander, and cashews ($16.75).

There’s also a wonderful sandwich of shredded pork roasted with chilies–hit with some cheese and slathered with lemon-cumin mayonnaise on a great bun ($7.25). This is served with crisp yucca chips; be sure to get the chipotle ketchup for zipping your chips.

The restaurant also serves a more traditional set of grilled items (churrasco) on skewers, including a mix of chicken, pork, and sirloin ($15.25), seafood of the day (market price), garlic-marinated lamb ($16.75), and a great-looking mix of veggies–zucchini, carrots, eggplant, peppers, red onions, and beets ($10.50).

Though Rhumba has a fine selection of wines, including many by the glass, a good before-dinner bet is Brazil’s classic cocktail, the caipirinha, made from a special rumlike drink called cachaca with sugar and sliced limes ($5). It’s best slightly tart. For dessert, any of the magnificent offerings–such as chocolate chenille cake with candied ginger and mango sauce ($4.75)–will do.

Rhumba, 3631 N. Halsted, is open every day from 5:30 to 10:30. Call 773-975-2345.

–Don Rose

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Steve Abrahms, Scott Helm, Tony Marchese photo by Randy Tunnell.