Three months have passed since I dined at Alex Atala’s restaurants. Three months. And I still get that fuzzy feeling when I think about my experience that day.
I was in Sao Paulo for five days to discover the best cuisine that the city has to offer and for such a short space of time, I took away memories that will last a lifetime. The hosts certainly knew what they were doing – leaving the best
experiences until last so that we left the city itching to go back.
Our second to last day was what has gone down in (my) history as Alex Atala
day. We rocked up at Dalva e Dito at lunchtime to be greeted by a fresh-faced
Alex Atala who welcomed us to his neighbourhood restaurant.
I stepped inside and my eyes were drawn to a number of design
features. The brightly coloured rustic Portuguese tiles that covered the floor
looked almost too pretty to stand on and the blue and white tiles that adorned
the back wall of the restaurant glistened as the rustic chandelier shone out
and lit up the room. I peeked into the open plan kitchen to my right as we
were shown to our table and found it hard to believe that the calmness that I
witnessed would last during service. But it did. And that’s just one of the things
that makes Alex Atala’s restaurants so special.
Lunch started off with a star fruit Caipirinha. Our hosts wisely ordered a couple
of portions of the h’orderves, which included house bread, Aviacao butter, half a bulb of roast garlic and three types of hot chilli peppers in oil that caught one of our group off guard. I ordered the lamb loin with crispy potatoes and chimi chirri for main.
Alex Atala doesn’t just strive to perfect every dish that is served at his
restaurants. Presentation is also key. And his little touches certainly count. From
the little butter tin to the petite pottery dishes that housed the chillies, dining at
Alex Atala’s restaurants is a visual feast, as well as a tasty one. And I don’t just
mean tasty, I mean out of this world tasty. I saw similarities between Dalva
e Dito and Corner Room by Nuno Mendes in Town Hall Hotel in London. Pink
and tender lamb loin packed full of flavour was quick to melt on the tongue
and crispy potatoes seasoned perfectly were a revelation. It reminded me of
an iberico pork dish I once devoured and got emotional about at Corner Room.
Both chefs take a piece of meat and work their magic, producing something
sensationally tasty. Yes, that’s what it is, sensational.
Fast forward a few hours and I am sitting in the back of a mini van on the way
from the hotel to Alex Atala’s prize restaurant, D.O.M. It is our last night in Sao
Paulo and I sense sadness in the air. Could it really be over so soon? But while
the sadness was starting to kick in, so was the excitement at dining at what has
just been voted the third best restaurant in the world in the World’s 50 Best list.
We arrived and were walked through the restaurant to the chefs table where
a large glass table sat on top of an old tree trunk. Alex greeted us again and
apologised that he would not be cooking for us as he was ill with the flu. Gone
was the bright face that we witnessed earlier in the day, instead replaced with
glazed eyes looking sadly at a scrunched up tissue in his hand. I wanted to tell him to go home and to rest, but despite the glaze, I saw determination in those eyes to show us the best of his restaurant. Had all three of us pushed him out of the door, he would have walked straight back in again.
We opted for the fourteen course tasting menu with matching wines, which
kicked off with one of the prettiest dishes I had ever laid eyes upon – green
tomato gel with edible flours and herbs. This dish didn’t only look too
good to devour but was also a delight for the taste buds, each mouthful holding a
new surprise in store. The Oyster pane with taipoca marinee also impressed with
a clever mix of fish roe and tapioca balls sat on top of an oyster. As our coconut apple with seaweed, mushroom and camaru dressing arrived at the table, Alex emerged from the kitchen holding a brown coconut. Inside sat a foamy white ball, which Alex picked out and explained that the ‘coconut apple, as he calls it, is what forms when the coconut starts to sprout. Most discard the foamy white coconut interior but Alex relishes it. On our plate sat two cubes of coconut apple with two seaweed variants and thinly sliced mushrooms. The dish worked so well, partly for the flavour combinations but also because of the excellent combination of textures with the crunchy slimy seaweed and dry crunchy coconut apple.
As the fifth dish approached the table, my heart sank. Sat on a cube of pineapple were two large dead Amazonian ants. Alex explained that the ants were raw with absolutely no seasoning. They had simply been frozen. He gave us all a knowing smile and steadily walked back to the kitchen. I stared down at my plate and looked around the table. I seemed to be the only one that was scared. Very scared. I looked to my left and Oliver was already stuffing the whole cube into his mouth – I looked to my right and David and Paul had already eaten their cube, ants and all. I looked towards the kitchen and saw Alex staring at my plate, waiting for me to place the morsel into my mouth. I knew I had to do it so I sliced it and placed a half in my mouth. I chewed hurriedly, slightly wincing and felt the crunch of the ants on my teeth. The first few bites were hell – I couldn’t help but picture a thin ants leg getting stuck in my teeth and I couldn’t quite grasp the fact that the ants were completely RAW. But then it hit me – an intense citrus flavour that filled my mouth and caused me to grin from ear to ear. I glanced into the kitchen at Alex who was giggling and nodding as if to say ‘I told you so’. I was gobsmacked and quickly picked up my second piece to experience the pleasure again. I was laughing and fighting back tears of joy. It’s a moment that I will remember for the rest of my life.
Five more main courses rolled out of the kitchen before we made it to dessert and by the time the Panan sorbet arrived, all of us were giggling like school children. The matching wines had kicked in and ten glasses down, we were all feeling slightly tipsy. The sorbet slipped down easily and we enjoyed green papaya, yoghurt and bacuri and another dish of lemon and banana ravioli with priprioca before finishing with Brazil nut tart with whisky ice cream curry, chocolate, salt, rocket and pepper. Brazil nuts, unsurprisingly, featured heavily in my trip. I have attempted to preserve the Brazil nut toiletries supplied in the hotel to keep the memory alive. When I run out, the Body Shop shampoo and conditioner should do the trick. But back to dessert. The dessert cleverly used a range of flavours and textures with savoury peppery rocket, salt and a whisky ice cream with a sweet Brazil nut tart. On paper, I was sure that the flavours would not work and they most probably wouldn’t if most people attempted using them in a dessert but this gentleman cracked it.
Five hours after we had arrived, we were the last group of diners in the restaurant. Alex patiently sat at the bar waiting for us to finish our last course before joining us for a quick chat. Being ill with flu and mustering up the energy to sit with us certainly shows his character. We all knew that Alex would have little sleep that night for he would be back at work early the next morning to do it all again. None of us could fault a single minute of the evening and as we walked out of the door, back to the mini van, none of us spoke a word. We spent the journey back to the hotel in silence, each one of us savouring the memory of what could have been the greatest dining experience of our lives.
Rua Barão de Capanema 549
Food for Think was a guest of Embratur