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São Paulo's Best Restaurants

Regional cachaças at Mocotó, in the Vila Medeiros district.

Photo: David Nicolas

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.

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