sao paolo-dona onça-preparing glass for red wine copy

Our charming and good looking maître d’ swirling the wine in the glass to get rid of any lingering smell from the wash.

The buffet at Bodega Catena Zapata was huge but there was only one dish I was really interested in and that was the pork shank stew served with creamed corn. It was so good that I asked lovely Karina which chef was responsible for it — we were at the Park Hyatt Masters of Food & Wine in Mendoza to which Karina had invited me — and she immediately introduced me to Janaina Rueda, a delightful young Brazilian chef who has a bar/restaurant in Sao Paulo where I went recently with the inimitable Luiz Horta. Janaina’s food is simple hearty Brazilian home cooking but presented elegantly and our delicious degustation menu started with scrumptious pastels and a very pretty 3 lemon caipirinha, both great Brazilian classics.

sao paolo-dona onça-caipirinha & pastels copy

Our next appetiser was a delightful mini ‘burger’ made with a particularly good pao de queijo (cheese bread), filled with sausage.

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After that it was time for serious cooking with a delectable and rather refined frango com quiabo (chicken with okra), a typical dish from Minas Gerais which I have to visit one day as I have family there. The okra is sliced and cooked with the chicken in a generous broth and strangely enough, the sauce wasn’t slimy which normally happens when you cut into okra — in Lebanon, we are very careful to keep the okra intact and we saute it before cooking it in the sauce to stop it releasing the mucilaginous substance that is so typical of this vegetable.

sao paolo-dona onça-chicken copy

The chicken dish was impressive but not as impressive as the pièce de resistance of our meal, cupim or zebu‘s hump which I will be writing more about. Some of you may have read about my camel hump adventures. Naturally, Luiz knew all about them and when we were talking over lunch at the Tramshed of my impending visit for Paladar Cozinha do Brasil, he promised to arrange for me to eat zebu’s hump so that I could continue my hump education! And it was really interesting to compare. Both humps have more or less the same texture but the zebu’s is a lot more tender unless the camel’s hump comes from a very baby one.

sao paolo-dona onça-cupim all gone copy

Janaina braises her cupim and serves it in lovely mini metal cauldrons but the dish looked as gorgeous on the plate. The meat came with banana, corn, inhame (yam), maxixe (a sort of mildly bitter vegetable) and nabo (a kind of giant turnip) and on the side, we had beans and pirão (a gooey purée made by mixing manioc flour with a fish or meat broth; I imagine it was meat broth in this case).

sao paolo-dona onça-cupim on plate copy

By then we were feeling pleasantly full but Janaina had other ideas for us and she sent us an Italian dish — they serve Italian food in her other restaurant, Attimo, where her husband is the chef — of sausage and lentils with mostarda. Not very many people can make sausages and lentils look pretty but Janaina does, mainly because of the way she dices the translucent mostarda and places it on the rim of the plate to add colour.

sao paolo-dona onça-sausage lentils & mostarda copy

But this was a short Italian interlude. We went back to eating Brazilian with feijão de tropeiro (beans mixed with toasted manioca flour, scrambled eggs, parsley and fried pork belly; it’s called tropeiro because it was carried by troopers herding horses and cattle in the hilly hinterland of Minas Gerais). I had had the dish several times before but Janaina’s version was superior.

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The savoury degustation ended with the trooper dish and we passed onto the sweet degustation with three small bowls of different puddings (sorry the picture didn’t come out as nicely as I’d hoped despite my beautiful new camera). They were very good but what was even better was the cheese cake served on an intense purée of guava. I never eat guava in London because it never tastes of anything but this is not the case in Brazil, where guava and most other fruit are quite wonderful.

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And to finish, a few brigadeiros or soft chocolate bonbons which are a taste of childhood for many Brazilians. I can’t say I share this passion!

sao paolo-dona onça-brigadero copy

Apart from the delicious cooking and the fun ambience, there is one more reason to go to Dona Onça, and that is the amazing Oscar Niemeyer building where the restaurant is sited. If I were to move to Sao Paulo, I would get a flat there or in Liberdade but that is for another post!

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