On a recent trip to São Paulo Cedar Lewisohn takes time out to visit South America’s star chef Alex Atala, taking in some groovy juice bars along the way.
The first thing I did a er arriving in São Paulo was hit the nearest juice bar, just off one of the main roads in the city centre, Rua Augusta. Fruit juice in Brazil is a big deal, and I’ve certainly had some of the best fresh juices of my life in the most unassuming diners, or from street vendors in this mammoth megalopolis of a city.
The first juice I tried was graviola (aka soursop), which was pounded and mixed with milk and sugar. You can get soursop juice in the UK at some Jamaican take-away restaurants, but it would never be as fresh. So, first juice, pretty good.
My Brazilian friend then suggested I try some of his Açaí drink. This was a kind of thick, gloopy, purple milkshake-type thing, which I tried with some hesitation. I’d vaguely heard of Açaí, but knew little about it. The drink actually tasted really good, and I finished the entirety of my friend’s cup. He laughed, and informed me that the Açaí berry is from the Amazon rainforest and has many healing properties as well as being an aphrodisiac. For the purpose of writing this text, and because I could not remember how to spell it, I did a quick internet search on Açaí, and it turns out the little berry is pretty unique, and an interesting example of a superfood. One of these tiny berries, for example, supposedly contains more protein than a chicken egg.
A couple of days later I was in a sun-drenched street market in the Vila Clamento district (on my way to White Cube and the Museum of Modern Art), and there was a stall selling sugar cane juice. I’ve always loved sugar cane, it brings back memories of being a kid wondering around, lost, at the Notting Hill Carnival. I’d only ever chewed the sugar cane sticks and had never seen them put through a juicing machine to make this sweet but subtle liquid. It was worth the 36-year wait.
After these various juice excitements, you might think I’d be ready to take a break from all this digestive novelty. In fact, my São Paulo food odyssey was just beginning as I was about to meet the most famous and innovative chef in Brazil – Alex Atala. Alex is known in global foodie circles as the man who mixes ingredients traditional to Brazil, often sourced from the Amazonian rainforest, with high-end dining. He has two restaurants in Sao Paulo, D.O.M. and Dalva e Ditto. In 2012, the prestigious San Pellegrino restaurant guide rated D.O.M. the fourth best restaurant in the world– so getting a table is not easy. Example: the couple sitting next to me had own in especially from Vienna for one night, just to have dinner at D.O.M.
I decided to have the basic tasting menu, but at some stage I must have been upgraded to the full shebang. First off , the bread and butter arrived with a garlic paste. I foolishly thought the paste was a starter, and ate the whole thing in seconds. After that, the dinner consisted of a dozen or so small-ish dishes. Some highlights included the cured sea bass with pitanga and baru nut. This was very beautifully presented in a small bowl, the white sh surrounded by a bright pink soup, all covered with delicately cut herbs and tiny owers. It looked slightly Asian, and tasted fantastically light and tangy. The roasted heart of palm with anchovy was a great surprise. Very simple, but an excellent combination of flavours, with the anchovy providing a dense salty baseline to the gentle mashed palm. The Filhote (Amazonian sh) with tucupi and tapioca was also beautifully served with tiny flowers in a green broth (tucupi is a traditional Brazilian yellow sauce made from the manioc root, if not fermented and cooked thoroughly, the cyanidric acid in the manioc root is poisonous). Next was one of Alex Atala’s star dishes, pineapple with Amazonic ant. Yes, pineapple with ant! What I guessed was a piece of ceramic, shaped like carved wood, arrived at the table with two very large ants on it, a small cube of pineapple, some green parsley dust and a tiny yellow leaf. It was a huge surprise to find that these Amazonian ants tasted of lemongrass.
What struck me while eating the meal was how much this type of restaurant experience is as much about the theatre of each dish as it is about the taste and provenance of the food. Next up was shrimp with kale and arugula and then wild boar caramel toffee and manioc bras (root vegetable). As exciting as this all was, I was starting to feel full up. At this point, a portion of aligot arrived. Not listed on the menu, the elastic-y cheese and potato dish was served at my table by the waiter who had dashed from the kitchen twirling the dish acrobatically around two spoons. Art as theatre-wise, this had to be a high point.
The next dish was a jabuticaba sorbet with wasabi. This small, egg-shaped serving of ice cream arrived on a huge disc of ice, which itself was sitting on yet more crushed ice, all of it presented in a rustic looking trapezoid bowl. It went down the hatch without a scratch. After that came lime and banana ravioli with priproca (the latter being a rare Amazonian root whose flavour is extracted and used in a similar way to vanilla essence). Next was pumpkin, vegetable coal and tapioca ice cream. Despite being stuffed to bursting at this point, I still very much enjoyed this delicate little dessert. Finally, just in case anyone was still feeling a bit peckish, came brazil nut tart with whisky ice cream, curry, chocolate, salt, rocket and pepper.
The meal at D.O.M. was something of a once-in-a-lifetime experience. It was full of spectacle and drama: part dinner, part museum exhibition served on a plate. The service was immaculate. I haven’t even started to describe the wines that accompanied the meal.
Alex Atala needs to be applauded in many ways, for revealing how spectacular the most supposedly humble of ingredients can be, for bringing his research into these often obscure and forgotten foods to new audiences, and for doing all this with such discreet elegance. As I sit here with a mild hangover in freezing cold, grey London, with rain drizzling outside, it’s hard to imagine that just over three weeks ago, I was in sunny São Paulo, eating all these wonderful foods and sampling so many inspiring new flavours.
I guess today I’ll have a Pot Noodle for lunch.
D.O.M. Rediscovering Brazilian Ingredients, by Alex Atala, is out now, published by Phaidon.