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.
- Video: Sâo Paulo's Best Street Art
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.
- Video: Sâo Paulo's Best Street Art
“A new pride in Brazilian flavors!” exclaims my friend Luiz Camargo, a local food-magazine editor, over lunch the next day in the chichi Jardins district (here, São Paulo resembles Beverly Hills). “It’s huge news in this globalized city of immigrants, which used to import foreign chefs and treat them like idols and role models.”
Veneration of haute imported chefs notwithstanding, immigrant cultures are what made São Paulo such an exciting food city from the get-go, even before the current explosion of interest in locavore flavors turned it into the world’s newest culinary mecca. Founded in 1554 by Portuguese Jesuit missionaries, Sampa (as the locals call it) received a vast influx of immigrants throughout the 19th century—but particularly after the abolition of slavery in 1888, when foreign labor was needed to work the coffee plantations surrounding the city. Italians brought pizzas, Germans brewed their beer, the Japanese transformed farming.
“So we mix pasta, sushi, feijoada, and Portuguese salt-cod fritters,” Camargo explains. “It’s always been perfectly natural here.”
Of course there was Brazilian cuisine, too—itself a hybrid of Portuguese, West African, and indigenous influences. But as Camargo is telling us, until recently, “eating Brazilian” was something relegated to home or to cheap rice-and-beans lunch joints. Barry and I take this all in while still daydreaming about our ur-mid-morning snack: a puffy pão de queijo (a round cheese-and-manioc-starch bread) accompanied by a bracing cafezinho at Pão de Queijo Haddock Lobo, a tiny takeout counter just down the street.
For a tutorial in contemporary flavors, Camargo has brought us to Dalva e Dito, Atala’s new casual restaurant. In contrast to D.O.M.’s flashy experimentation, the adobe-hued Dalva is all about sharp updating of grandmotherly regional dishes. Moqueca, a seafood stew from the Afro-Brazilian state of Bahia, normally heavy with its thick film of dende (palm oil), tastes clean, vibrant, and coconutty here. To follow: pirarucu, a white-fleshed Amazonian fish that can reach 450 pounds. Atala uses the loin of a smaller, more delicate specimen, saucing it with a Brazil-nut vinaigrette. “A typical caipira [country folk] meal,” Camargo pronounces as the main course arrives. It’s porco na lata, pork cooked in a tin can into a tender confit. For dessert: silky pastel-hued sorbets in tropical flavors such as caju (cashew fruit), guava, and graviola (soursop). “Brazil is vast,” Camargo says. “Until now, such flavors were as exotic to us Paulistas as they are to you!” He adds slyly: “Alex showed young local chefs that you can be cool and Brazilian.“
That afternoon we squeeze into the fun house–style museum opening for local heroes Osgemeos, internationally toasted twin-brother graffitists. A band plays a raucous northeastern forró beat among the twins’ spray-painted fantasies. More forró music awaits at lunch at Mocotó the next day. Restaurants don’t get any cooler—or more Brazilian—than this current cult spot owned by 30-year-old Rodrigo Oliveira, Atala’s favorite young chef and disciple. A few years ago Oliveira took over the humble three-decade-old place from his father—in secret, while Dad was away—tweaking the details but preserving the populist espírito and the vernacular flavors of Pernambuco, the northeastern state his family’s from. Getting here is an adventure: You ride in a cab for an hour, leaving the city’s high-rises and their helipads behind, finally emerging in the ramshackle working-class district of Vila Medeiros. You squeeze onto a bench under the shingled awning outside. Then you wait—and wait—for a table, savoring the block-party vibe with a glass of cachaça. Scouring Brazil’s alambiques (distilleries) for hyper-artisanal stuff, Oliveira has assembled a list of nearly 350 bottles. Brave them straight or in a rainbow of exotic fruit caipirinhas: milky graviola, violet jaboticaba that tastes a bit like tropical blueberry.
When at last we claim a long wooden table inside the color-splashed restaurant decorated with cachaça bottles, the food proves worth waiting for. There’s a goat stew in the rustic style of the sertão (northeastern backcountry), and the restaurant’s eponymous dish, mocotó, is a high-octane cow’s-hoof soup. Mix it with yellow favas laced with linguica sausage, shredded beef, and cilantro and you get mocofava, Oliveira’s signature dish. Another standout, carne de sol (salted air-dried beef), isn’t dry in the least. That’s because Oliveira cooks it sous vide for 24 hours before serving it smothered with roasted garlic on a hot metal slab. “Sous vide cooking of carne de sol,” Atala says to me later. “This is isn’t ‘molecular gastronomy’—it’s a way of advancing Brazilian identity.”
Brazil’s classic cuisine is, of course, a colonial melting pot of identities. Consider Brazil’s answer to cassoulet, feijoada—a copious casserole of black beans and various pork parts. “Feijoada is a cauldron bubbling with three cultures,” someone is saying at our long table at A Figueira Rubaiyat, a Jardins steak house legendary for its Saturday feijoada buffet. “The farofa (toasted manioc meal) is an indigenous staple; the linguica sausage and collard greens are a Portuguese contribution; many say the whole dish is a creation of African slaves.” To this mix Figueira’s owners, the Iglesias family, bring a sustainable twist: most of the ingredients come from their fazenda (estate) in the fertile southwestern state of Mato Grosso do Sul. Our waiter offers more caipirinhas and a hoary feijoada cliché: Eat it as slowly and languidly as it was cooked. Four hours later we’re still ferrying our plates from the mile-long buffet back to our table under the vast 100-year-old fig tree in the glass-roofed patio. Another helping of creamy feijao floresta beans slowly simmered over two days; spoonfuls of crunchy farofa, emerald ribbons of greens, a few orange segments. Then pig craziness: tender ribs, two kinds of sausages, slow-cooked baby boar, smoked tongue…feet, ears, tail, snout. Feijoada is a dish for which the siesta was invented.
To taste the essence of Brazil without the bean-induced slumber, we head to Maní, where the country’s national dish has been given a post-molecular treatment by the talented thirtysomething husband-wife chefs Helena Rizzo and Daniel Redondo. A onetime fashion model, Rizzo met Redondo at Celler de Can Roca, the cutting-edge Catalan restaurant where she was an apprentice and he, chef de cuisine. You taste the influence of their mentors, the Michelin-darling Roca brothers, in the Waldorf salad deconstructed into celery ice, apple gelée, and Gorgonzola emulsion, a dish as pretty as a bouquet of spring flowers. Still, the true excitement is in the couple’s reinterpretations of Brazilian flavors. For their trompe l’oeil feijoada, the intense black-bean liquid is “spherified” into delicate beads (adapting a technique by Ferran Adrià). The black pearls arrive on the plate dotted with bits of linguica and oranges under a crunchy sheath of julienned fried kale. After dinner Rizzo talks about food memories being like “fragments of a puzzle, which over time cohere into a dish that connects us to our roots, amid the endless stimuli and confusion of big cities.” I find this thought very poetic, especially in overstimulating São Paulo.
If feijoada is a Saturday lunch ritual, the perfect Paulista Sunday follows a futebol match with a late pizza supper (more than a million pies are sold in the city on Sundays). And if the wait is eternal at Bráz, the city’s best upscale pizzeria? Leave your name at the door and chill with a frosty chopp at Bar Original nearby, in the bar-rich southern Moema district. A diminutive pull of draft beer, chopp (pronounced SHO-pee) far outranks the caipirinha as the country’s national tipple. “Chopp is perhaps more a beachy Rio thing,” comments our friend Nirlando Beirão, an elegantly goateed publisher and bon vivant who’s just taken us to a Corinthians club soccer match. “But all Brazil is addicted to extremely cold drinks.” The cozy, tiled Original elevates draft beer to high science. The brew (small-bubbled Brahma) rests in iceberg-cold tanks for at least two days to settle the head. Wisecracking chopeiros chill your glass between ice cubes to precisely 30 degrees before filling it: first beer, then exactly a three-finger thickness of crema (foam). Don’t stop at just two. Even if rivers of very quaffable Portuguese wine await at Bráz to accompany the ultra-cheesy pies from the infernal wood-burning oven and the pleasantly oily Calabrian sausage bread. Looking up from the puffy round of our chard-and-pine-nut pizza, I notice genial Beirão is brooding. His beloved Corinthians lost.
No brooding—and please, no Havaianas flip-flops, such as I’m wearing—at Gero. Yes, this is the low-key Italian outpost of the chic Fasano hotel and restaurant empire. But according to our table companion—an editor at Brazilian Vogue— 60 Birkin bags arrived in São Paulo with the recent opening of the Hermès store, “and they’re all here today.” Gero owner Rogério Fasano joins our table, dapper with a cashmere sweater draped just-so over his jacketed shoulders. “Meat smothered in red sauce and cheese, with fries and white rice” is how Fasano describes typical Italo-Brazilian cantina fare. He takes pride in the role his family played in tuning Paulistas to the refinements of modern cucina. Fittingly, the porcini in our pasta were flown in from Italy, and the milanesa, a plate-size veal cutlet breaded in tiny cubes of white sandwich bread, presents a truly bella figura. “São Paulo restaurants are so great because we thrive on regular customers, not a tourist economy,” Signor Fasano declares. He then waves arrivederci to a regular, the owner of the soccer club São Paulo, the crosstown enemies of the Corinthians.
In the 21st-century edition of the post-Columbian culinary exchange, Brazilian chefs travel to Spain to absorb new techniques and spread the word about their native ingredients. Meanwhile, Spanish—or rather, Catalan—chefs head to São Paulo, smelling gold. Madrid-based super-toque Sergi Arola has just opened Arola Vintetres in a high-rise hotel in Jardins. A few years ago the adorable Catalan twins Javier and Sergio Torres (they look like Vince Vaughn’s handsomer younger brothers and are chef-owners of the celebrated Dos Cielos, in Barcelona) launched their swank Eñe, in the up-and-coming southern Jardins district. “One of us can always be here, the other in Barcelona,” says Sergio, smiling. “Of course nobody can tell us apart.” Playing innovation (oyster tartare inside a hollowed-out cherry tomato dolloped with caviar) against tradition (the best pa amb tomàquet and patatas bravas outside Barcelona), Eñe’s menu hits all the right notes. The succulent seafood fideuà, a pasta paella, almost transports us to the Spanish Mediterranean chiringuitos (beach shacks). Almost, because the room is no shack, with its lipstick-red wall hanging accenting the mod warehouse-style mix of warm wood and concrete.
São Paulo’s 1.5 million-strong Nikkei (Japanese Brazilian) population is the biggest Japanese community outside Japan. This makes the city home to pristine sushi restaurants, such as Jun Sakamoto or Kinu, inside the muito-luxe Grand Hyatt hotel. One foggy morning we meet the ebullient Adriano Kanashiro at a street fair in Liberdade, the city’s Little Tokyo, near downtown. Until recently Kinu’s chef de cuisine (about to launch a place of his own), Kanashiro is third-generation Nikkei of Okinawan descent. Japanese first came to Brazil in 1908 to work as farmers, he tells us while sprinkling a springy shrimp ball snagged from a street vendor with katsuo flakes and spicy green sauce. “Our ancestral cuisine had to adapt,” he continues, now sipping caju juice from a tropical-fruit stall, “into its own kind of fusion.” To prove his point he swings us by Itiriki Bakery. Here, Japanese karepan (curry buns) are sold alongside Brazilian palmito cakes and eggy breads laced with Portuguese sausage. Our next stop, Mercado Municipal, the city’s main market, is a short drive away. Under its soaring roof we take in the strands of Brazil’s multicultural past: Italian purveyors of spicy Calabrian sausage; Portuguese salt cod experts; shrinelike Amazonian stalls hung with herbs used in macumba rituals; riotous produce stands you can smell from miles away. We eyeball an electric-pink wedge of guava while Kanashiro test-chews a new pineapple variety called gomo-de-mel. Then he haggles with the fishmonger for crocodile-tail meat. (“Tastes like fish, only fishier.”)
Kanashiro is back with us for dinner at the white-hot Kinoshita, where the sushi chefs have Japanese features and sexy Brazilian body language. Kinoshita has a Zen-on-steroids design and a magnetic host in chef and co-owner Tsuyoshi Murakami, Kanashiro’s rival and pal. “Mura” was born in Japan and worked in Spain and New York, which explains his beguiling Japo-Mediterranean hybrid cuisine with the occasional tropical flourish. I note that the umeboshi plum sauce makes a surprisingly perfect foil for the tangy grilled disks of pupunha, and that buffalo mozzarella benefits from accents of ginger, lime, and house-made soy sauce. This same sweetish organic shoyu mingles with olive oil to highlight a simple, hauntingly delicious dish of daikon and shaved Japanese cured mullet roe. Aha! Across the room I spot an old acquaintance, a Basque chef with a TV show in Spain and a restaurant in Mexico City. He’s dining with a famous young Mexican cook whom I last saw in Madrid. Briefly, I join their table. Over mango ravioli with yuzu ice, we compare notes from our São Paulo eating adventures. Is priprioca the Next Great Flavor? Will Amazonian foodstuffs conquer the world? We share in the feeling: the future is now.
Anya von Bremzen is a Travel + Leisure contributing editor.
A Figueira Rubaiyat 1738 Rua Haddock Lobo; 55-11/3087-1399; feijoada buffet for two $110.
Bar Original 137 Rua Graúna; 55-11/5093-9486; drinks for two $11.
Bráz 125 Rua Grauna; 55-11/5561-1736; dinner for two $50.
Dalva e Dito 1115 Rua Padre João Manuel; 55-11/3064-4444; lunch for two $105.
D.O.M. 549 Rua Barão de Capanema; 55-11/3088-0761; dinner for two $305.
Eñe 213 Rua Dr. Mario Ferraz; 55-11/3816-4333; dinner for two $94.
Gero 1629 Rua Haddock Lobo; 55-11/3064-0005; lunch for two $133.
Itiriki Bakery 24 Rua dos Estudantes; 55-11/3277-4939.
Kinoshita 405 Rua Jacques Félix; 55-11/3849-6940; dinner for two $210.
Kinu 13301 Avda. Nações Unidas; 55-11/2838-3207; lunch for two $106.
Maní 210 Rua Joaquim Antunes; 55-11/3085-4148; dinner for two $210.
Mercado Municipal 306 Rua da Cantareira; 55-11/3326-3401; mercadomunicipal.com.br.
Mocotó 1100 Avda. Nossa Senhora do Loreto; 55-11/2951-3056; lunch for two $40.
Pão de Queijo Haddock Lobo 1408 Rua Haddock Lobo; 55-11/3088-3087; snacks for two $8.