The first time I tasted Helena Rizzo’s food was at Paladar Cozinha do Brasil. She was demonstrating her super sophisticated version of feijoada and I was so intrigued by the droplets of concentrated feijoada she had created by boiling the beans with the meat then sieving them to have a very smooth, very soft purée which she dropped in tiny spoonfuls into a solution to produce ‘jellified’ droplets — a process called spherification I think — that I had to have a taste. So, Danilo who was translating for me and I decided to sneak a taste where they were photographing the chefs’ dishes. The feijoada droplets were sensational, bursting into the mouth to release the most exquisite silky purée that had an unmistakable taste of traditional feijoada. Absolutely fabulous. And as luck would have it, lovely Ilan Kow and Luiz Americo Camargo who were our hosts at Paladar invited me to dinner at Mani to taste more of Helena’s cooking.
I first went to Sao Paulo in 2009 to attend Paladar Cozinha do Brasil which anyone interested in Brazilian food should go to — it is totally fascinating. I then stayed on with my new found cousin to explore the city and try a few more restaurants including Jun Sakamoto where I learned that a top Japanese chef does not expect you to add anything to his sushi — he will brush the pieces with as much soy sauce as he thinks fit and all you have to do is pop the morsel into your mouth. That meal was the closest I got to knowing what it is like to eat in Japan, until that is I went to Urasawa in LA. And the reason why there is amazing Japanese food in Sao Paulo is because it has the largest Japanese community outside Japan, with many living and working in Liberdade where I went this time with the very talented Danilo Nakamura, both to explore the quartier and have lunch at Kidoairaku, a tiny place with the entrance plastered with posters of the owner’s gorgeous brother as a female dancer — apparently he is very famous.
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.
There are between 7 and 10 million Lebanese and Syrians in Brazil. And about 4 million of them are in Sao Paolo alone. As a result, Lebanese food is very familiar to Brazilians and specialities like sfiha (a term that covers both manaqish and fatayer) and kibbe have become part of the national culinary repertoire. And of course there are Lebanese restaurants galore. Some are good and some not so. I have now tried three and each is good in its own way even if they serve a different cuisine from the one I was brought up with. I guess it is because they have been in Brazil for several generations; and despite having preserved their culinary repertoire, serving unusual dishes like shish barak which is not normally found on restaurant menus, they have adapted and changed them slightly. A few days ago, I was taken by adorable Luiz Henrique Ligabue to Casa Garabed which loved, particularly the fact that it is in the garage and one bedroom of the owner’s home giving the restaurant a rather unusual feel: part bistrot and part home dining.