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