Putting the bite on Brazil
On a gastronomic tour of Sao Paulo with celebrated chef Alex Atala
WITH a screech of brakes, Alex Atala pulls up to Sao Paulo’s Fasano hotel in a bashed-up Jeep and hastily clears the passenger seat. Samba blares from the radio. ‘‘Jump in,’’ he says with a smile.
The most celebrated chef in Brazil — his restaurant D.O.M. came sixth in this year’s San Pellegrino list of the world’s 50 best restaurants — is taking me on a gastronomic tour of his hometown. And who could turn down killer caipirinhas or the best churrasco in the southern hemisphere?
Setting off, Atala navigates the busy lunchtime rush hour around the Jardins district with gusto. In this leafy enclave, five-star hotels sit beside designer boutiques, and wealthy Paulistas seamlessly mix running shorts with six-figure diamond accoutrements and poodles.
Our first stop is the Casa Santa Luzia supermarket, a one-stop shop established in 1926 and boasting the best Brazilian and international brands. Bypassing the stylish shoppers, we head straight to the pastry section to admire delicate egg tarts called quindim, which sit temptingly in the cabinet alongside bragadeiro cake made of condensed milk and chocolate. Then we browse the fruit and veg section, where cashew fruits sit alongside bright red siriguela and firm black jabuticaba.
‘‘It started as a small outdoor market and step by step it grew,’’ says Atala. ‘‘The beautiful thing is that they don’t want to grow more than this. There will only be one store.’’
Since returning to Brazil from New York in 1994, Atala has placed the country’s native produce centre stage at his restaurants, D.O.M., which he opened in 1999, and Dalva e Dito, a decade later. Soon, he will open a bar called Riviera.
‘‘I changed the gastronomic scene,’’ says Atala. He explains that foreign produce flooded the Brazilian market in the 1990s after an embargo was lifted, pushing local produce to the wayside. ‘‘Brazilian restaurants were simple. Fine dining restaurants served French or Italian food. However, I did interesting things with Brazilian ingredients.’’ The trend caught on, and Sao Paulo now boasts a bountiful crop of restaurants that use local ingredients. He says Mani, which offers molecular twists on Brazilian food, and Epice, with its mixture of Brazilian and French cuisines, are worth trying.
Upstairs in Santa Luzia’s chocolate section, Atala points out a Brazilian brand he loves: Amma. Made in Bahia in the north, the velvety chocolate is organic and infused with flavours such as sapoti, a local fruit. Yet the beautiful packaging, with its bold colours and silver lettering, is the real showstopper. Once outside, we cross the road to Atala’s favourite cafe, Suplicy, where smart young Paulistas tap away on their Macs and sip organic espressos.
After a quick coffee, we head to a nearby roadside barbecue marked by a sign with a galloping horse. At Vento Haragano, the rodeo fare on offer means only one thing: churrasco. Families typically come here on the weekend for the fixed-price meal at 103 Brazilian real ($50) a head. Each diner is given a chip — red on one side to indicate you are full, green to keep on serving the food. A bar groaning with salads offers everything from local cheeses to couscous and fried polenta. Every possible cut of beef is served, from the rump to a picanha sirloin.
As we eat, Atala explains the difference between Brazilian and Argentine barbecue methods: ‘‘Here, the bricks are much lower down, so the distance between the meat and the bricks is greater. They use charcoal in Brazil. Wood is more commonly used in Argentina.’’ We devour endless cuts of meat, all delivered on skewers alongside pao de queijo, warm cheesy bread balls. Time to flip my chip to red.
After lunch, we pass through Batman Alley, where street artists change the lane’s look from top to bottom every few months, before reaching the pretty neighbourhood of Vila Madalena. Once a hippy-ish area, it is now a smart Boho hood where stylish mothers chat over plates of sushi. But there are still signs of the old ways in the traditional working-class kilo res-