Chef Emme Ribeiro Collins has re-imagined Tempero do Brasil, her parents’ restaurant on University Way in Seattle.
Emme Ribeiro Collins never thought she would open a restaurant, right up until she did last August. Alcove Dining Room is an intimate, low-ceilinged lair that fills the ground floor of a house on University Way near Ravenna, a space occupied for nearly two decades by her parents’ restaurant, Tempero do Brasil. With the 31-year-old Collins now in charge, the concept is more upscale, but the food hasn’t lost any of its Brazilian zest.
Collins was born in Salvador in the Brazilian state of Bahia. She came to Seattle with her family as a 6 year old and was in middle school when her parents, Graça and Antonio Ribeiro, opened Tempero in 1999. She and her younger brother, Tony, basically grew up there, which is why, unlike just about every other student in her graduating class at Seattle Culinary Academy, Collins didn’t want to own a restaurant. She knew the business demanded long hours. Instead she became a personal chef and caterer, a career that left her more room to maneuver as she and her high-school-sweetheart-turned-husband, Michael Collins, raise three children.
In 2017, her parents, both nearing 60, decided to close their restaurant, which she’d been using as her catering kitchen. When the owners of the building, longtime family friends, extended a sweet deal to Collins, she couldn’t say no. She created Alcove, a restaurant with limited hours that could double as space for special events and classes.
Traces of Tempero remain — notably Graça’s bold woodblock prints on the newly painted white walls. Collins installed four large faux-wood trestle tables that snake between two rooms divided by French doors. The front room is little more than an enclosed patio with white fabric tenting the ceiling and space heaters for warmth.
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Collins narrates her prix-fixe dinners with the poise you’d expect from a former contestant on Cutthroat Kitchen. Now limited to once a week on Saturday nights, the dinners have been slow to catch on, possibly because of the price tag — $65 per person plus tax, gratuity and beverages — or the terms: prepaid tickets are sold through the reservation system Tock and are nonrefundable, albeit transferable. The looser “tapas nights,” with an a la carte menu of petiscos (snacks), have been far better attended and thus have been expanded to Thursday as well as Friday. (More on that below).
At a December dinner, there were 10 people altogether: one table set for a party of eight; an adjacent table, just as large, set for two. I shivered a little in the chilly room as we grazed on delicious salt cod fritters (bolinho de bacalhau) passed as hors d’oeuvres and sipped a cocktail of vodka-spiked Guarana, a highly caffeinated Brazilian soft drink, garnished with pomegranate seeds. The drink was part of the optional $25 beverage pairing that includes three wines and Cravinho, house-made cachaca liqueur steeped with clove and cinnamon that tastes like Fireball whisky. It was perfect with the spiced flan dessert.
A small salad of mixed bitter greens, mundane despite cashews, cheese crumbles and passionfruit vinaigrette, was not the kickoff I’d expect given the price of the meal. But an elegant fish course followed: black cod with bits of plantain in a velvety coconut cream sauce topped with farofa — seasoned, sautéed manioc (cassava) flour as crunchy and crumbly as toasted breadcrumbs. Braised oxtails were a wholly satisfying climax. We were encouraged to pick up the bony chunks with our fingers, truly the best way to access all the silky, rich meat. The oxtails were served family style with wedges of roasted kabocha squash and collards on a platter cushioned with manioc polenta cooked in the meat’s braising broth, principally seasoned with garlic and pimenta e cominho, Brazil’s indispensable cumin-pepper spice blend. (This month’s menu features dobradinha, a Portuguese stew made with braised beef, calves’ feet and tripe.)
When I returned for petiscos on a Friday night, I found a couple of musicians strumming bossa nova tunes. Seating is communal. Next to me were a couple, originally from Brazil, and their two school-age boys thrilled to be allowed to share a can of Guarana. All four of them — and I — demolished several skewers of grilled chicken hearts drizzled with cilantro chimichurri, a sauce not traditionally Brazilian but perfect with the dark, slightly liverish hearts. The boys had seconds. I moved on to chicken croquettes dabbed with Samboroso, a searing, green chili sauce made from a secret family recipe. It puts a kick, as well, into the aioli sauce for prawns sautéed with garlic and lime.
The petiscos menu isn’t all snacks. Picanha, a marinated steak cut from the sirloin cap, comes with arrumadinho — black-eyed peas, farofa and pico de gallo sharpened Brazilian-style with vinegar rather than lime juice. Escabeche baiano, a whole branzino, dredged in manioc flour and sautéed to a rigid arc, revealed sweet, mild flesh beneath its crusty skin and was greatly enhanced by a tomato-tinged coconut sauce and piquant pickled peppers.
Beer and cachaca are what Brazilians like to drink, hence the very short wine list. Drinks, mixed in the kitchen, include a classic cachaca-based caipirinha and a “caipifruta” made with the addition of seasonal fresh fruit (lately tangerine and pineapple) and Grand Marnier.
Once a month Collins makes feijoada, the meaty black-bean stew that is Brazil’s national dish. December’s midday Sunday feast was packed with expats and locals with ties to Brazil. The pork feet start cooking the day before. Other meats go into the pot with the beans early Sunday morning and simmer for hours, resulting in extreme tenderness and an ebony sheen. You’ll find beef chuck, pork belly and slivers of skin, smoked pork ribs, and Polish kielbasa and kabanos, which Collins says taste closest to the sausages they’d use in Brazil. The platter of meat came to the table with bowls of beans, garlicky rice, sautéed collards, fried bananas, pico de gallo and farofa. Musicians provided a samba beat that suit the celebratory mood. Inevitably there was dancing, led by Collins’ mom and dad.
Her family hasn’t completely left the building. They all pitch in, either cooking or serving. When it came down to it, Collins says, none of them could say goodbye. It’s obvious their hearts are still in the business. You can almost taste the love.
Alcove Dining Room ★★½
5628 University Way N.E., Seattle
Reservations: recommended for Thursday and Friday petisco nights; required for Saturday prix-fixe dinners and monthly feijoada Sunday lunches
Hours: 5-10 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays; 6:30 p.m. single seating for Saturday dinners
Prices: $$$ (petiscos, small and large plates, $5-$28; four-course prix-fixe dinner $65 per person plus tax, gratuity and beverages)
Drinks: beer, wine, Brazilian cocktails and soft drinks
Service: warm and friendly
Parking: on street
Credit cards: all major
Access: no obstacles to entrance; restrooms not ADA compliant