A culinary break in Rio de Janeiro

For a city with so much to offer, Rio’s dining scene often goes under the radar. But there’s plenty to satisfy hungry visitors, from boteco street bars to the hotspot of Botafogo

By Tom Le Mesurier
Photographs By Getty

For the best part of a century, Rio de Janeiro has been sold to the world as a city of exotic delights. From the outset, this was done using a handful of cliches: samba, carnival, forest-encrusted mountains and the sweeping, crescent beach of Copacabana. And although bossa nova and football were added to the mix in the late 1950s, food never got a look in.

Even now, few first-time visitors to Rio have much knowledge of Brazilian cuisine, beyond rodizio (all-you-can-eat) barbecue restaurants and the meaty, beany stew of feijoada.

The reality, however, is much more interesting: Rio’s dining scene is in the grip of a renaissance. The city, which for so long looked to Europe and the US for gastronomic inspiration, has finally started to value its own traditions. And if this culinary seismic shift has an epicentre, it’s Botafogo. This neighbourhood wasn’t on any visitor’s radar even five years ago, yet today it’s a hotbed of gastronomic creativity and experimentation, with many establishments rolling a multitude of functions — cafe, deli, bar, restaurant, gallery — into one space.

However, the new movement isn’t confined to one area. A newfound interest in Brazilian ingredients and local produce can be seen across the city, at every level. Michelin-starred restaurant Lasai, helmed by Rio native Rafa Costa e Silva, sources ingredients from the chef’s own garden, as well as a plethora of local producers and growers. And at the other end of the gastronomic scale, many of the city’s hole-in-the-wall bars, which once served just a handful of generic, mass-produced beers, today offer menus full of locally brewed ales.

Joining the traditional daily feiras (markets selling fruit and vegetables) is a fresh breed of weekend market — one that showcases artisanal producers of cheese, charcuterie and wine, as well as hosting food trucks, street food stalls and live music. Chief among them is Junta Local, which takes place in changing venues across the city each week.

Despite a growing focus on localism, Rio’s food scene isn’t operating in a vacuum. Many chefs, restaurateurs and producers have spent time overseas, picking up new skills and knowledge before returning home to apply their talents to the city’s kitchens.

What’s more they’ve been joined by a legion of foreigners who’ve decided to make Rio their home. Like everything else in Brazil’s second city, the end result is vibrant, unique and anything but boring.

A day in Botafogo

In recent years the buzz around Botafogo has reached fever pitch. Bordered by Copacabana to the south, Christ the Redeemer to the west and Sugarloaf Mountain to the east, this once-sedate neighbourhood has been descended upon by a young, food-obsessed crowd that’s been happy to rip up the rulebook in order to make something new (and delicious). London has Hackney, New York has Williamsburg — now Rio has Botafogo (or ‘BotaSoho’ as some insist on calling it).

Start with breakfast at The Slow Bakery, just off Botafogo’s main drag, Voluntárias de Pátria. Opened in 2016, this cool establishment produces the city’s finest sourdough. The breakfast dish of choice is the sublime croque monsieur, accompanied by single-origin coffee (a Brazilian Arabica variety, naturally). Stroll over to the tranquil gardens of Casa de Rui Barbosa for a spot of downtime. One of the few green spaces in Botafogo, the lawns and fruit trees surrounding this 1850s mansion are the perfect spot to read or plan your next move.

For lunch, head to Marchezinho, a French-owned bar/restaurant that uses exclusively local produce to craft elegant French-influenced dishes such as whole roast palm heart with vinaigrette, or ratatouille served with Brazilian cheese. You can pick up more cheese and charcuterie to enjoy later, too.

Heading north along Rua Bambina, get your early evening fix of art, dance, fashion and poetry at Espaço Cultural Olho da Rua. This multipurpose cultural space hosts events and exhibitions from performance artists and local designers, among others.

Round out the night by indulging in the wine world’s latest preoccupation, which has found a home in Botafogo. Cru Natural Wine Bar specialises — as the name suggests — in natural wines, which are fermented using naturally occurring yeast, without the addition of sulphites. Here the starchy formality of traditional wine culture is replaced by friendly, knowledgeable staff who will steer you towards some fabulous Brazilian wines. The menu features seasonal, organic tapas-style dishes, specifically designed to complement them.

A day in Ipanema and Leblon

Ipanema and Leblon make up a neat, 2.5-mile-wide rectangle, bordered to the north by a beautiful saltwater lagoon and to the south by two of Rio’s finest beaches. The region is crisscrossed by an easily navigable grid of streets that are home to some of the city’s most luxurious bars and restaurants.

Start the day by drinking in the views, along with an ice-cold coconut water from the kiosk at Mirante do Leblon. From this lofty viewpoint you can see Christ the Redeemer, Sugarloaf Mountain and the entire length of Leblon and Ipanema Beaches.

As the day warms up, cool off with one of the award-winning ice creams at Vero Gelato Italiano. Freshly made each morning, the velvety gelato and sorbets feature Brazilian fruits rarely found outside South America. Try the cupuaçu flavour — an Amazonian fruit that tastes like a mix of banana, pineapple and pear drops.
For many visitors, the word ‘Ipanema’ evokes the lilting rhythm of The Girl from Ipanema. Hum away as you enter Toca do Vinicius, a lovely old music shop that’s a shrine to all things bossa nova. It’s crammed with original vinyl, memorabilia, photos and even the handprints of many of the genre’s greats.   

Just a few blocks away, Q Chocolate is an artisan shop that will leave serious chocolate-lovers weak at the knees. Here the celebrated Aquim family sell their beautifully packaged, single estate, bean-to-bar chocolate. Sourced from the family farm in the state of Bahia, this is chocolate for grown-ups: no milk, nuts or soy lecithin — just the finest Brazilian cocoa, cocoa butter and a pinch of sugar.

As night falls, bag yourself a table on the roof terrace of stylish Nosso Bar (arrive early or you may have to wait at the bar to be seated). Rio’s mixologist of the moment, Tai Barbin, crafts sophisticated cocktails from behind the gorgeous first-floor bar, while chef Bruno Katz creates elegant dishes bursting with fresh flavours. His seven-course tasting menu, available on Tuesday and Wednesday evenings, features myriad foams, crumbles and fermented vegetables.

 

Spotlight: Botecos

There’s no better place to enjoy the locals’ famously warm sense of humour over great bites to eat than at botecos (street bars specialising in bar food and banter). In the bohemian Santa Teresa neighbourhood, Armazém São Thiago is an ancient bar frequented by artists, poets and misfits of all stripes. Order a cold beer, a shot of fiery ginger-infused cachaça, and bolinhos de abobora com carne seca (pumpkin croquettes stuffed with cured beef).

At Adega Pérola, skip the menu and go straight to the mouth-watering delights on display in the glass cabinet that runs the length of the bar — bacalhau (salt cod), sausages, various marinated seafood dishes, olives and artichoke hearts. Order five or six small plates and a basket of bread — perfect for sharing, boteco-style.  

The larger-than-life owners of Bar da Gema met at culinary school in 2008 and decided to open a bar the following year. You’ll taste their profound love of Brazilian boteco food in every bite of every dish. The stand-out is polentinha com rabada (golden cubes of fried polenta topped with rich shredded oxtail).

Fine dining

Lasai
Chef Rafa Costa e Silva proved himself at Spain’s two-Michelin-starred Murgaritz, and in 2014 he returned to Brazil to open Lasai (pictured above), arguably Rio’s finest of fine dining restaurants. Expect to be blown away by the exquisite 14-course tasting menu — the dishes often show Spanish influence, but the focus is on indigenous Brazilian ingredients and organic produce.

Chez Claude
Son and nephew of the French chefs credited with inventing nouvelle cuisine, Claude Troisgros is a household name in Brazil. And at Chez Claude the concept is to encourage maximum interaction between the chefs and their guests. Informal and intimate, it has space for just 30 diners, who are seated at tables surrounding the open kitchen. The menu is French-Brazilian fusion; standouts include a native baroa potato-stuffed raviolo and a foie gras and palm heart terrine.

Oro
Rio’s only restaurant with two Michelin stars, Oro delivers spectacular modernist cuisine centred around fire, aromatic smoke and a charcoal grill. Chef Felipe Bronze produces dishes such as the meltingly tender 48-hour braised beef rib with smoked egg yolk farofa (cassava crumble), while his wife, award-winning sommelier Cecilia Aldaz, can line up perfect pairings with every course.

Published in the March 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller Food

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