If there was a taco I missed in 15 years of eating my way through New York City's Latino neighborhoods, it was only because the options are virtually limitless and my appetite is not. As the author of Nueva York: The Complete Guide to Latino Life in the Five Boroughs, I've tasted nearly every tamale and ceviche. I even rented an apartment in Jackson Heights, Queens, partly for the empanada shops on Northern Boulevard.
Related: Classic Ceviche Recipe
So when I moved to the noisy megalopolis of São Paulo last December, I came ready to eat. And yes, I found plenty of feijoada (a stew of beef, pork and beans). But to my surprise, I also discovered a groundbreaking group of chefs mixing European techniques with Brazilian traditions. Not only are they elevating traditional Brazilian cooking, once relegated to plate-lunch specials and modest family suppers, but they have given Brazilians a new sense of culinary pride. And they have made São Paulo a pilgrimage-worthy food destination: Just before I arrived, a delegation of top Spanish chefs led by none other than Ferran Adrià showed up for a conference called the Mesa Tendências International Gastronomy Forum.
Alex Atala is the leader of Brazil's new chef renegades, best known for integrating Brazilian ingredients into his very high-end dishes. When I arrived mortifyingly late for our meeting at his avant-garde restaurant, D.O.M., after getting stuck in São Paulo's notorious traffic, Atala insisted that it was OK, that he was "just a normal person."
Not true. He is Brazil's first celebrity chef, the kind that appears on television and writes cookbooks. Atala philosophizes about traditional Brazilian cooking, which he calls, not at all pejoratively, "primitive cuisine." And he does so while referring to himself in the third person: "What does Alex Atala consider primitive cuisine? A pot, with everything cooked inside."
Atala grew up in southeast Brazil, eating foods from the rain forest. At 19, he left to backpack around Europe and attend cooking school in Belgium. When he opened D.O.M. in 1999, his goal was to reinvent flavors from his childhood. Today, he takes pupunha, an Amazonian palm fruit that tastes like roasted chestnut, and turns it into faux fettuccine. He spritzes crème caramel with oil from the root of priprioca, a Amazonian grass used mostly in perfumes.
Unknowingly, I was meeting Atala right before he introduced an almost-all-new menu, which included a handwritten note: "D.O.M. takes on its original vocation: to be Brazilian. I thus renounce the use of foie gras and truffles." That meant I had to go back. I took two friends off my lengthy "Seth, When You Go to D.O.M. Take Me" list, and we ordered as Brazilian as we could. An obvious choice was the cupim, the ultra-marbled hump of the steer commonly found in Brazilian churrascarias. Atala serves it with pureed potatoes infused with pequi, a superpungent fruit that is most often used to flavor rice. After a few bites, I realized this was the risk of Atala's pro-Brazil shift: You'd have to be insane to dislike foie gras, in my opinion, but perfectly reasonable people can dislike pequi.
Less risky, but perhaps more of a statement, is Atala's new restaurant, Dalva e Dito, which honors the humble foods he grew up eating. Comfort foods are treated like works of fine gastronomy, particularly moqueca, a fish-and-coconut-milk stew. Some customers grumble about paying so much for what is essentially street food, but the prix fixe weekday lunch is just $25 and includes an exceptional rotisserie chicken that gets carved tableside. Rotisserie machines are storefront staples here in working-class neighborhoods, where they are often referred to as "television for dogs," but Dalva e Dito's is a high-end French import producing a chicken that even skeptics will admit is worth the price.
Perhaps the most brashly Brazilian restaurant I've been to is Brasil a Gosto. Its mission: to bring the widest array of Brazilian flavors and traditions together on one menu. The 31-year-old chef, Ana Luiza Trajano, greeted me in her trademark bandana, accompanied by a publicity entourage that didn't seem to fit her laid-back style. Trajano's grandparents are from Minas Gerais and the northeast—two of the great home-cooking regions of Brazil. When she was a girl, her family, which owns the successful Magazine Luiza department store chain, made regular trips from their house in the small city of Franca to larger cities like São Paulo. "My mother brought us once a month for, say, Japanese food, so that we didn't turn too caipira," she said. (Caipira means hick, and is the root of the word caipirinha.) "But at home it was always real, home-cooked Brazilian food."
Trajano apprenticed under Francesco Berardinelli at Beccofino in Florence. When she returned to Brazil, she saw immediately that the Italian devotion to local foods didn't exist in São Paulo. She decided to travel the country in search of indigenous ingredients like the baru nut, which she discovered in Brazil's central, savannah region known as the cerrado. It combines an intense peanutlike flavor with the texture of an almond and the richness of a cashew. Ground, this supernut is now Trajano's favorite ingredient; she adds it to everything from garlic butter to ice cream. During her travels, she also uncovered recipes for traditional dishes that she modifies for a more discerning audience, but never drastically. The result is a menu that shouts "Brazil" and makes Atala's cooking seem like a whisper of national pride in comparison.
"A lot of what is happening now is not a discovery," Trajano told me. "It's a rediscovery. It's about giving value to the Brazilian food that people always ate at home—rice, beans, even suckling pig—but were too ashamed to serve when guests came over for dinner."
An extreme example is a dish called atolado de bode. Bode, a cut from older billy goats, has a reputation for being a very smelly meat that poor people eat because they can't afford anything else. At first, Trajano had to entice diners by offering them a money-back guarantee, but now customers come back specifically to order the tender chunks of goat meat (marinated for at least 12 hours in red wine and thyme), which slide off the bone onto creamy manioc puree.
While Trajano promises Brazilian diversity, Mocotó chef Rodrigo Oliveira, the city's most exciting young star, is obsessively focused on the cuisine of his father's native Pernambuco state in the northeast. Pardon the lack of journalistic decorum here, but Oliveira is the coolest. The 29-year-old chef has never studied in Europe, which may explain why he has stuck close to his Brazilian roots. He has also stubbornly refused to move his restaurant from the working-class neighborhood of Vila Medeiros, forcing customers from the wealthy south of São Paulo to break out the GPS and make what can be an hour-long drive in traffic or pay 100 reais ($55) for a cab.
He repeated for me the story he has now often told the Brazilian press. He grew up working in his father's hole-in-the-wall restaurant, serving traditional dishes like caldo de mocotó, cow's-foot soup. As a teenager, he urged his father, to no avail, to expand the simple menu. When his father left for a few months, Oliveira saw his chance for a bloodless coup, renovated the place and tweaked the menu. Not long after, he abandoned his environmental engineering studies and enrolled in cooking school in São Paulo. Oliveira returned to his father's restaurant, lightened many of the Pernambuco region's starchy dishes, and reinvented others using newly learned techniques. For his reimagined version of carne de sol, a salted beef dish similar to jerky but served hot, he cooks coxâo duro, a cut from the rear leg of the steer, sous vide for 24 hours. This gelatinizes the cartilage, leaving the dried meat oxymoronically moist. He then serves it on a sizzling-hot stone with roasted garlic and vinegary pimenta de bico peppers.
Last November, Oliveira received a visit from an extraordinary delegation: Joan Roca, the Michelin-two-starred chef at Spain's brilliant El Celler de Can Roca, and Oriol Castro, Ferran Adrià's right-hand man at El Bulli. Oliveira, insanely, kept the restaurant open to the public. "I couldn't disrespect my clients," he says, "just because my idols were coming."
Stuck with a roomful of famous chefs and no tables to spare, he sent them to the garden usually reserved for staff and "did what we do in Brazil: I got a bucket, filled it with ice and beer and brought cachaça and a tray of snacks" like pork rinds and beef croquettes. The Spanish chefs also got to taste Oliveira's famous mocofava, a modernized version of his father's caldo de mocotó. The cow's-foot soup tastes more like a hearty stew in this incarnation, with extra depth from fava beans, chunks of linguiça sausage and thinly shredded beef.
Oliveira is a passionate spokesperson for Brazil's regional northeastern cuisine. But Helena Rizzo, the 30-year-old model-turned-chef at Maní, has a more global perspective. "I like cooking and eating Brazilian dishes, but I also like Italian, French and Spanish dishes," she said. Rizzo labels the current vogue a "Tropicália moment"—a reference to the revolutionary Brazilian cultural movement of the 1960s that melded Brazilian, African and American traditions. "We don't want to deny the things that come from outside, but to absorb them, to work with them in our own way."
Her husband and co-chef, 32-year-old Catalan Daniel Redondo, trained with Joan Roca; Maní features techniques and ideas from both Brazil and Spain. It may not be a strictly Brazilian restaurant, but I found that the best dishes had Brazilian touches. Pupunha provides a slightly crunchy ravioli casing for abóbora squash, melon and almonds. Gnocchi is made from the parsniplike South American root mandioquinha. Maní is less a shrine to modern Brazilian food than a restaurant that is cooking great food. And that may make it the most forward-thinking Brazilian restaurant of them all.
Seth Kugel is a São Paulo–based correspondent for GlobalPost.com and a contributor to the New York Times Travel section.