Up­ping the ante

The Brazil­ian Ama­zon is a plen­ti­ful pantry for the coun­try’s lead­ing chef

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page - KEN­DALL HILL

THE chef, hand­some and grin­ning, emerges from the kitchen to place a small plate in front of me. On it are two plinths of pineap­ple crowned with black ants about the length of my mid­dle fin­ger­nail. ‘‘Have one by it­self,’’ Alex Atala urges. So I do, and the flavours are ridicu­lous. Ahint of eu­ca­lyp­tus, then a cloud­burst of lemon­grass that fades, even­tu­ally, to a gin­gery warmth.

These in­cred­i­bly tasty in­sects owe less to the kitchen tech­nique of Brazil’s fore­most chef —– he sim­ply serves them as na­ture made them — than to his pas­sion for root­ing around in the seem­ingly bot­tom­less pantry of the Brazil­ian Ama­zon. ‘‘[Na­tive Brazil­ians] use these ants as a spice in the jun­gle,’’ he says. ‘‘We have many ants in Brazil, but only this one smells and tastes like this.’’

Since ban­ning such lux­ury im­ports as foie gras, truf­fles and caviar from DOM, his Sao Paulo res­tau­rant, five years ago, Atala has de­voted him­self to sourc­ing in­dige­nous foods from his own back­yard. It helps that Brazil in­cludes 60 per cent of the Ama­zon, the most bio­di­verse cor­ner of the planet and home to one tenth of all species. Fra­grant in­sects aside, Atala has also re­claimed man­ioc in all its nour­ish­ing in­car­na­tions, fruits such as bacuri and jabu­ti­caba, rices, flu­vial fish and a re­mark­able root called pripri­oca. Said to smell like patchouli, for Atala the root has ‘‘clear notes from grass, from herbs, even from marijuana — not the smoke one, from hemp’’.

In the process of trans­plant­ing these un­com­mon tastes from the rain­for­est to the streets of Sao Paulo, his res­tau­rant has rock­eted to fourth place on the S. Pel­le­grino World’s 50 Best Restau­rants list.

Lo­cated in a cul de sac in the ex­clu­sive Jardim Paulista neigh­bour­hood, DOM’s mas­sive front door (mind the se­cu­rity guard) opens to a soar­ing space of 6m ceil­ings and a cen­tre­piece chan­de­lier by Philippe Starck. Din­ing here could be daunt­ing if not for the warmth of the wel­come and the at­ten­tive­ness of staff throughout my 51/ hour marathon of gour­man­dis­ing.

Atala, in train­ers, black pants, white chef’s shirt and apron, comes to the ta­ble to greet me (as he does ev­ery guest) and to dis­cuss the menu. ‘‘Do you eat ev­ery­thing?’’ he asks. Yes. ‘‘And are you open to new ex­pe­ri­ences?’’ Well, I’ve just flown for a day to get here, and pulled ev­ery imag­in­able string to se­cure this reser­va­tion at short notice on my one night in Sao Paulo. So yes, please, show me ev­ery­thing you have.

Atala rises to the chal­lenge by propos­ing a menu of 10 dishes, each matched with a sym­pa­thetic wine by his tal­ented young som­me­lier. But when the last plate ar­rives at 1.15am, it takes the night’s tally to 17 — all but two with match­ing wines. Af­ter which I in­ter­view the chef for 40 min­utes over a night­cap of aged cachaca.

Atala’s pret­ti­est dish is a shal­low white bowl of the palest green tomato gel dec­o­rated with mi­cro-herbs and dainty flow­ers. The jelly har­bours an in­tense tomato tang, but ev­ery mouth­ful is sub­tly dif­fer­ent thanks to sea­son­ings of cubed cit­rus, black salt flakes and minia­ture herbs (co­rian­der is a stand­out flavour). A gor­geous dish to look at, and to savour.

The ant is the big sur­prise of the night, but cer­tainly not the only one. As I’m hoe­ing into a crisp-skinned plank of fil­hote (the ju­ve­nile form of pi­raiba, the world’s largest cat­fish) and marvel­ling at how it tastes like roast pork, my mouth pops and fiz­zles and then goes slightly numb. The sen­sa­tion is like a spa for the mouth, leav­ing the in­sides tingling and dazed. Atala says I must have bit­ten into a piece of jambu, a type of cress renowned for its mildly anaes­thetic prop­er­ties. It’s ter­rific fun, es­pe­cially when chased with a light Bouze­ron alig­ote from Bur­gundy.

There is also a cooked oys­ter, which is usu­ally a crim­i­nal of­fence. But un­der Atala’s del­i­cate touch, the oys­ter is ever-so-gen­tly sauteed so that it is still raw in the mid­dle, then coated in brioche crumbs and sub­merged in a shal­low dish of tapi­oca and salmon roe pearls. Add dashes of lime juice and Tabasco, and the re­sult is to­tally charm­ing.

There are sea snails, de­liv­ered fresh daily from the coast 100km away, with a flesh and flavour some­where be­tween a plump scal­lop and a Moreton Bay bug. And there is pripri­oca, the prized root that Atala serves as a smear of aro­matic caramel be­side three translu­cent ravi­oli of lime-flavoured gel en­cas­ing golden discs of ba­nana. Washed down with a 2001 Chateau Bous­casse Bru­maire, this fra­grant, fruity com­bi­na­tion is pure plea­sure.

To de­ter­mine whether pripri­oca was ed­i­ble be­fore in­cor­po­rat­ing it into his menus, Atala worked along­side cos­met­ics com­pa­nies Gi­vau­dan and Natura, which were al­ready cul­ti­vat­ing it for their per­fumes. ‘‘The funny thing is that peo­ple in the Ama­zonas never ate pripri­oca; they only used it to per­fume them­selves,’’ he says. ‘‘So I started to use it and now it is one of the mag­i­cal in­gre­di­ents for me. I’m not talk­ing just about the flavour, but there are at least 300 peo­ple — na­tives, I mean — who are mak­ing a liv­ing from cul­ti­vat­ing pripri­oca now. There’s a huge so­cial ben­e­fit from it.’’

Like­wise, the black rice that he serves, lightly toasted with green veg­eta­bles and Brazil nut milk, is an­other na­tive dis­cov­ery he has cham­pi­oned since the day eight years ago when a poor farmer from the Paraiba Val­ley, 200km from Sao Paulo, ar­rived at DOM and pleaded with the great chef to taste his prod­uct. ‘‘He said: ‘You must taste it and you will see it is a nice in­gre­di­ent.’ And I tasted this black rice and I be­came crazy. Wow! Such a beau­ti­ful in­gre­di­ent.’’

Work­ing with a lead­ing agri­cul­tural in­sti­tute, the once-strug­gling farm­ers now cul­ti­vate a range of gourmet grain va­ri­eties in­clud­ing bas­mati, cateto and red rice. There is also a minia­ture rice, about a third of the size of stan­dard grains, re­leased this year un­der the la­bel Re­tratos do Gosto, and bear­ing Atala’s name. He owns 2 per cent of the brand; the prof­its fund a rice re­search lab­o­ra­tory and, ul­ti­mately, bol­ster the farm­ers’ for­tunes.

‘ ‘ This is the beau­ti­ful thing,’’ Atala smiles. ‘ ‘ One in­gre­di­ent can re­ally change lives. Hearts of palm, pripri­oca, tu­cupi (man­ioc root sauce), ants as well — they are not only a flavour. There’s some­thing be­hind them that’s very im­por­tant for Brazil.’’

DOMproves to be an ex­tra­or­di­nary eat­ing ex­pe­ri­ence, and it is eas­ily the most fun I have had as a solo diner. The bill ar­rives and it is just shy of $500, with tip. For 17 on­cein-a-life­time dishes and 15 wines — plus that cachaca — it has been ab­so­lutely worth the ex­pense. Ken­dall Hill was a guest of LAN Air­lines and Nat­u­ral Fo­cus Sa­faris.

Del­i­cate green tomato gel with mi­cro-herbs

Brazil’s lead­ing chef, Alex Atala

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