5 Bites of São Paulo

Where to eat and drink in 'the city that never stops'

The Brazilian metropolis of São Paulo is poised to become one of the world's great restaurant cities. It already boasts the number-four establishment on the San Pellegrino/Restaurant magazine list, the elegant D.O.M., the province of Alex Atala, one of South America's most famous chefs — with another local place, Mani, at number 51.

São Paulo has some of the world's best steakhouses, a wide assortment of traditional Brazilian restaurants serving hearty comfort food, a number of first-class Italian places (and terrific pizzerias), and extraordinary sushi and other Japanese fare (the largest Japanese community outside Japan is concentrated in city's Liberdade district). In fact, as the largest city not just in Brazil but in the Southern Hemisphere, with a population of more than 11 million within the city limits and a total of almost 20 million in the whole metropolitan area, Saõ Paulo offers just about any kind of food you can imagine, at levels from the dirt-cheap basic to the gilt-edged and ethereal.

Deciding where to spend your dining hours in Saõ Paulo isn't an easy task, then. But here are a few places no visitor to the city should miss:

Breakfast: Paõ de queijo is the most unavoidable of Brazilian specialties, found everywhere from hotel breakfast buffets to street stands to fancy-restaurant bread baskets. If you eat in Brazil, it is difficult to avoid. Paõ de queijo, literally "cheese bread," is a relative of the Gruyère cheese puffs the French call gougères, but is denser and made with manioc (cassava) flour instead of choux pastry dough and typically with white cheese from Brazil's major cheese-producing state, Minas Gerais. Paõ de queijo can be leaden and nearly flavorless or supple and delicious — but none is better than that produced by Paõ de Queijo Haddock Lobo (on the street of the same name), a little open-front storefront bakery, which dispenses good coffee, several varieties of sweet breakfast pastry, the chicken-filled fritters called cozinha… and paõ de queijo that you will quite possible dream about. While some interpretations are neatly rounded and the size of golf or Ping Pong balls, the paõ de queijo here is free-form, crisp on the outside, and full of cheese and moist dough within. You tell yourself you're just going to have one and then wonder why you've eaten four. Because you've got good taste, that's why.

Lunch: Restaurante Emiliano, in the handsomely appointed boutique hotel of the same name, is a modestly sized, bright and airy dining room with luminous hardwood floors, one side of which is defined by floor-to-ceiling windows giving onto lush flowered hedges. Illuminated by sunlight, it's a warm room with a cool vibe. Here, chef José Barattino serves clean-lined, well-crafted food based on organic and sustainably produced ingredients, with slight Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese accents and the fresh surprise of ingredients from the Amazon and elsewhere in the vast Brazilian countryside. Try the elegant salad of cured scallops and fresh hearts of pupunha palm, roasted squares of sweet yellow manioc with a silky Brazil nut emulsion, ravioli filled with shredded guinea fowl meat in a smoked game broth speckled with chives, roasted rack of goat with red rice, and toasted almond brioche with mascarpone, peaches, and oranges.


Stop by Restaurante Emiliano, one of The Daily Meal's 101 Best Hotel Restaurants Around the World. Photo credit: Emiliano Hotel

Afternoon Snack: Named for a town (now better-known as Sterzing) in Italy's German-speaking South Tyrol, Vipiteno is a colorful Italian-style gelato and dessert outlet, offering ice-cream-filled fruit pastries, profiteroles, parfaits and sundaes served in tall glasses, and just terrific gelato and sorbet, from chocolate to green corn. For an afternoon pickup, order an affogato — rich, creamy vanilla ice cream anointed with dark, full-flavored espresso — or a bowl of Vipiteno's superlative pistachio gelato.

Cocktails: Skye Bar & Restaurant, on the roof of the ark-shaped Hotel Unique, offers knockout views of Saõ Paulo as the sun goes down and the city switches on the lights. Glass walls, a lap pool, outdoor beds for reclining, and a lively bar are among the attractions. The definitive Brazilian cocktail, the caipirinha — lime juice, sugar, and cachaça (the Brazilian sugar-cane brandy) — is available here in five incarnations, with different grades of spirits, from ordinary (which isn't bad) to super-premium (which is wonderful, bright and cooling with a heart of fire). If you don't want to drink on an empty stomach, very good sushi and an assortment of pizzas are available.


Sip a caipirinha at Skye Bar & Restaurant. Photo credit: Hotel Unique

Dinner: It's pricey, to be sure (a multi-course dinner with decent wine could cost as much as $500 per person), but who could pass up the chance to dine at the fourth-best restaurant in the world — especially knowing that it's one serving foods no other top-rated restaurant (outside Brazil at least) has likely even heard of? D.O.M. — the initials stand for Dominus Optimo Maximo, which might be translated from the Latin approximately as Lord Almighty (in a religious sense) — is a small place, 50 seats, narrow, with high ceilings, a dark wood-slat floor, cool beige walls, bare wood tables set with linen placemats, and a Philippe Starck chandelier suspended over an antique table in the middle of the room. It's all very understated and quietly luxurious.


Try the ray with batata baroa. Photo credit: Colman Andrews

Atala is well-schooled in French techniques, but he cooks food that is unmistakably, if imaginatively, Brazilian. Chibé is a kind of manioc flour mush eaten by native tribes in the Amazon; Atala reinvents it as a tabbouleh-like salad flavored with a dozen Amazonian herbs and blossoms, each with a different taste. He serves perfect little barely cooked shrimp with chayote, tamarind, and an unfamiliar honey-like flavoring that turns out to be cajuina, juice from the fruit of the cashew nut tree. Lightly toasted black rice mixed with bits of broccoli, celery, corn, scallions, and parsnips is moistened with Brazil nut milk. Atala cloaks skate with manteiga de garrafa (literally butter in a bottle) — a Brazilian take on clarified butter, traditionally made by vigorous shaking in a closed container — and flavors it with lemon thyme, with a side of smoked batata baroa (a sweetish yellow root vegetable also called mandioquinha or Peruvian parsnip) and a froth of peanut foam on top. Hearts of palm are turned into fettuccine, flavored Italian-style with butter, Parmigiano, and sage, but then dusted with popcorn powder to bring it back home. A long-cooked, meltingly tender piece of wild boar neck comes with toasted manioc flour and puréed banana. Tasting menus come with a "cheese course" based on aligot, the southwestern French classic of puréed potatoes with Cantal cheese, here made with yucca flour and cheese from Minas Gerais. Desserts might include a Brazil nut tart with whisky ice cream, chocolate, salt and pepper, and a few leaves of a very popular green here: arugula. Oh, back to Amazonian ingredients, as a kind of palate cleanser between savory courses, Atala likes to serve a square of intensely flavored pineapple topped with a couple of big, crisp-fried Amazon ants. They're supposed to have a citrusy flavor, but frankly they don't taste like much at all.
 

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