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The complete street guide to Rio's contemporary Carioca cuisine

The complete street guide to Rio's contemporary food scene

by Lara Espirito Santo Thursday, June 2, 2016

Brazilian chef Lara Espirito Santo travels to Rio de Janeiro to discover a city in the midst of a culinary revolution, seeking out the restaurants at the forefront of this exciting new food scene.

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Lara was born in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, but was raised in rural South America. Not your average child, she had a pet deer, owned a hunting rifle and spent her days in the field assisting her dad with the farm.

Whenever I get asked what Brazilian food is like, I never really know how to answer. I’m very aware that, being both Brazilian and a chef, this lack of reply to a seemingly straightforward question does not reflect well on me. But it is not ignorance that stymies me, rather the difficulty of finding the words to summarise something that is essentially an entire culture into a single sentence.

I like to think Brazilian food is a little like its people – a product of the different cultures that have contributed to the history of the country and an abundance of robust and diverse raw materials coming together to create a rich culinary tapestry. In São Paulo, home to the largest Japanese community outside of Tokyo, you will encounter truly authentic sushi prepared with fresh local fish, such as sea bass and dorado. In Bahia, the most northeasterly region of the country and former slave trade port, you will find spicy seafood stews perfumed with dendê oil – a palm heart oil typically encountered in African cuisine; a beautiful gift from one of the darkest periods of our history. In our deep mid-west, your palate will be tantalised with dishes made from our indigenous and ever-versatile cassava root accompanied by piranha soup or pirarucu grilled in banana leaves – river monsters turned gourmet delicacy.

The rich history of cultural influences on regional cuisine is repeated across the country, from the Gaucho barbecues in the south to the healing superfood fruits and vegetables in the Amazon. But when I think of Rio, my hometown, with its beaches, tropical rainforests and gargantuan mountains, I find myself wandering dangerously close to stereotypes. Feijoada? Caipirinhas? All you can eat meat? As much as I love all of the above, in a city that has undergone so much change in recent years I am adamant that Carioca (meaning originally from Rio) food culture is so much more than that.

I set out on a mission to discover the contemporary food scene of Rio de Janeiro and the people driving the changes behind it. In the city of sun, samba, sea and sand, it is easy to fall for the tourist traps, but if you want to eat like a local, come with me and I’ll show you around town.

Açai
Açai berry is a popular smoothie ingredient that has achieved 'superfood' status around the world
Padaria Rio-Lisboa
Padaria Rio-Lisboa is open twenty-four hours a day

Breakfast

 
 

Breakfast for Cariocas traditionally means a pão na chapa: a white roll slathered with butter and pressed between two steaming hot iron grills until golden brown. Accompanied by filter coffee served in a short glass (never a coffee cup) no one does it better than Padaria Rio-Lisboa, a Portuguese bakery open twenty-four hours a day. The health-conscious can be found across the street, enjoying a fresh juice or açaí with granola in BB Lanches, one of the many corner juice shops that will serve you whatever fruit juice combination you can imagine. Try acerola cherry with orange, cashew (the fruit, not the nut!) with lime, or fruta-do-conde (sugar apple) with passion fruit.

Cariocas are known for turning simple get-togethers into parties, so it wasn’t long before we yearned to make more of an event of this precious first meal. Tucked in a listed nineteenth century stone house, Casa Carandaí is a delicatessen and café, where the breakfast buffet boasts beautiful fresh fruit, homemade cakes, pastries and juices. In La Byciclette, the French-influenced bakery located within the city's botanical gardens, you can enjoy an array of breads and viennoiserie surrounded by thirty-metre-tall palm trees. My favourite stop is Talho Capixaba, a butchers-turned-deli-turned-breakfast spot, where the scrambled egg sandwiches and tapioca filled with grilled coalho cheese (similar to feta) are the highlight.

 
Jobi
The sliced rump steak in brown butter at Jobi is a culinary institution in Rio
Braseiro
Braseiro's picanha with farofa and broccoli rice is another famous dish in the city

Lunch

 
 

Behind our spirited and outgoing demeanours, Cariocas are very proud people. We are fiercely protective of our city in the same way people are of their mothers – we can complain as much as we want, but as soon as someone else says something negative, we become feral (ask anyone from São Paulo). There are some places in the city that hold that same pride; they have survived the comings and goings of seasons, trends and crises and have become institutions of the city. Jobi is one of those places, where the staff are as old as the bar itself and will bring you your next beer as soon as they notice you have an empty glass. It is said that every night out in Rio can begin and end at Jobi, and whether it is at 9pm or 3am, the sliced rump steak served with bread and brown butter is as good as it gets. If you can’t get a seat at Jobi, try Braseiro, where the rump steak comes accompanied by the famous broccoli rice and egg farofa (ground cassava fried in butter). If you’re feeling bold, go to Filé de Ouro and order your steak ‘Oswaldo Aranha’ style – covered in golden flakes of fried garlic.

If beef is not your thing, don’t worry; Cervantes serves an unforgettable pork chop and grilled pineapple sandwich. If it is feijoada you seek, my favourite is at Bar do Mineiro, but I am sometimes tempted by Aconchego Carioca, famous also for their sun-dried beef and black bean fritters. So next time someone points you in the direction of a churrascaria say 'thanks, but no thanks’ and enjoy a proper Rio meal with the rest of us.

 
Talho
Many of Rio's restaurants and cafés offer authentic Carioca breakfasts and lunches
Puro
For a true taste of contemporary Brazilian cuisine, head to Puro, where dishes such as cassava crisps with sweet potatoes showcase local market produce

Dinner

 
 

As night falls, the city changes. While during the day Rio is laidback and relaxed, at night the energy becomes vibrant and electric. The first stop is always dinner, of course, but where to go? Rio is now home to young, innovative chefs who are redefining what it means to eat out in the city.

Whenever two Cariocas decide to go out for a meal, sushi is always an option. We are obsessed with it, and the sheer number of Japanese restaurants in Rio reflects that. My current favourite is Gurumê, where chef Daite Ieda delivers creative and beautifully crafted sushi at a reasonable price – the scallop and citrus sashimi, seared salmon with lemon zest and grilled shiitake are particular highlights.

If Jean-Baptiste and his sons Pierre and Jean Troigros were the pioneers of Nouvelle Cuisine Française in the 1970s, and Pierre's son Claude was responsible for redefining haute Brazilian cuisine in the late 1990s, the fourth generation Thomas Troigros had big chef shoes to fill when he entered the industry. Today he leads the kitchen of four family restaurants, including the Michelin-starred Olympe, where French technique meets typical Brazilian produce. Thomas also created his own burger joint, T.T. Burger, where the bun is made of local potato bread and the ketchup is his signature recipe where our native guava is the star ingredient.

 
Sushi
Japanese food is immensely popular in Brazil, and the two cuisines often meet to create a 'fusion' style of sushi
Iraja Gastro
The chocolate fudge cake at Irajá Gastro is a modern take on a nostalgic classic

Thomas is not the only acclaimed chef that has ventured into the street food world of Rio. Roberta Sudbrack and her eponymous restaurant holds the position of number ten in the Latin America’s 50 Best San Pellegrino list, but it is outside her food truck Garagem Da Roberta that people are queuing. Brazilian pastrami and cheese, hot dogs and thick-cut chips covered in urucum (a bright red Amazonian seed) aioli are just a few of the mouthwatering delights.

At Puro, a market-driven kitchen led by chef Pedro Siqueira, the fresh approach to using local ingredients arrives in the form of exceptional flavour and artful plating. His use of palm heart to wrap around fresh mushrooms as ravioli, or his daring combination of crunchy grilled octopus with melting pork belly is a breath of fresh air for Rio’s food scene.

Not too far from Puro is Irajá Gastro, where traditional dishes such as the rabada (braised oxtail) are elevated to a new level of delicacy and depth of flavour. The restaurant is famous for its brigadeiro cake – a warm chocolate sponge topped with melting chocolate fudge and a vanilla-speckled crème anglaise; a nostalgic nod to childhood memories as every Brazilian kid grew up indulging in the beautiful chemistry that is condensed milk and chocolate powder.

A couple of doors down is a discrete house with wooden window frames and door, so unpretentious and humble that, were it not for the small plaque that bears its name, it would be easy to believe it was just another neighbourhood home, rather than Rio’s leading gastronomic experience: Lasai. The food is an explosion of intricate flavours; delicate yet bold, luxurious yet essentially rustic, where simple everyday ingredients take centre stage. Of the many illustrious memories created that night, the spoonful of pork ragu laid on a petal of red onion was an ode to simplicity and flavour.

Food is culture. Our ingredients, methods, habits and everyday choices of what and where to eat are a reflection on who we are. Cariocas are dynamic, carefree, diverse, at times a little chaotic, at others graceful and delicate, but always passionate – and our food is exactly that. We hope you’ll enjoy your stay.

 

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