Long past midnight at restaurant D.O.M., in São Paulo, my partner, Barry, and I are sniffing out exotic notes (anise? banana?) in the Anísio Santiago cachaça. Produced in minuscule batches in the colonial state of Minas Gerais, this is the Sassicaia of sugarcane spirits.
“The refinement of the best grappa,” I suggest, in a daze.
“With the brawn of moonshine supreme…” offers Barry.
Quickly, travel fatigue (we’ve just flown in from New York) gives way to a pleasant delirium as we take in our surroundings.
Armored SUV’s await tanned CEO’s at the entrance to this soaring beige space. At the next table a clutch of French celebrity chefs (in town for a food event) ogle fantastical blondes in Diesel jeans and Louboutin heels. The blondes in turn glance adoringly at D.O.M.’s chef-owner Alex Atala.
A dish with five striking iterations of okra—sautéed, roasted, fried, reinvented as translucent paper, and turned into a crunchy caviar of its seeds—arrives. I examine my notebook, trying to make sense of flavors and names: fettuccine of pupunha (palm heart). Purple Amazonian basil scattered over a green tomato gelée. Vinaigrette of citronella (“An herb,” I’ve scribbled, “used by jungle natives as insect repellent”). At this late hour an exquisite dish of brioche-breaded oysters, under a glistening heap of lime-marinated tapioca pearls accented with Brazilian soy sauce, here seems less like chef-y artifice than some postmodern, postcolonial inevitability. Here being a multicultural, 11 million-strong megalopolis teetering on the brink of the future in a present of helipads, favelas, behemoth traffic jams, and celebrated street art that’s both wildly colorful and edgily feral.
Actually, scratch that: the future is already here at D.O.M. and a handful of other São Paulo restaurants whose chefs meld avant-garde European techniques with native ingredients in a distinctly original style. South America’s largest city has become the talk of the food world, a required stop for international mega-chefs from Alain Ducasse to Ferran Adrià (not to mention ravenous gastronauts like myself). Subtropical warmth, high-energy urbanism, and Brazilian sexiness blend to deliver a cuisine that dazzles like no other.
Here at D.O.M., possibly the world’s Next Great Flavor lands on our table. It’s a weird root, hairy and scratchy. “Priprioca,” Atala says, flashing his charismatic grin. “Amazonian natives use it for cosmetics.” After discovering that priprioca was edible, Atala has been extracting its essence to use in desserts. Its aroma (“grassy; a suggestion of dope”) infused the caramel served with the transparent banana-and-lime ravioli we’d just had. Priprioca is Atala’s latest obsession—along with every possible by-product of manioc; turu (anyone for mangrove worms with a flavor of oysters?); and jambu (a tongue-numbing Amazonian green).
Trim-bearded and tattooed, the fortyish Atala looks like a rock-star chef, which he is, and a former punk-rock DJ, which he was before he went backpacking in Europe at the age of 19 and enrolled in catering school in Belgium so he could acquire a work visa. Returning to Brazil in 1994, he opened D.O.M. five years later and today spearheads Brazil’s food revolution. Forager, fisherman, environmentalist—and for my money one of this planet’s most exciting chefs—Atala is an evangelist, spreading the word about Amazonian foodstuffs around Brazil and beyond. Extreme terroir-ism is easy in Europe, it occurs to me after another gulp of cachaça. Another matter altogether is the Amazonian rain forest, home to the world’s largest collection of flora and fauna.