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São Paulo's Best Restaurants

Regional cachaças at Mocotó, in the Vila Medeiros district.

Photo: David Nicolas

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.

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