Putting the bite on Brazil

On a gas­tro­nomic tour of Sao Paulo with cel­e­brated chef Alex Atala

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - JEMIMA SIS­SONS

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-

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