Before your first travel to Rio, you already know what the city — my hometown — is all about. There's carnival, soccer, beaches and parties. You also know you will visit Christ the Redeemer and Sugarloaf Mountain. Until the last few years, those have been the main associations with Rio de Janeiro, and that was enough to draw tourism of 2 million people a year to the city.
While carioca cuisine still remains rooted in populist foods, Rio’s culinary scene is finally going through a remarkable evolution, with a handful of notable chefs — some locals, some who fell in love with the city and never left — fashioning new takes on native ingredients and traditional staples. On a recent trip back to Brazile, I was delighted to discover what I would now call a movement: the new carioca cuisine. Here are five restaurants that are elevating Rio's food scene.
Claude Troisgrois came to Rio in 1978. His father, Pierre and his uncle, Jean, two of the most famous members of a generation of chefs who defined French cuisine, sealed the Troisgrois name, and Claude brought to Rio all the honors of their legacy.
Troisgros was a pioneer in working with Brazilian ingredients, and has been inspiring not only a new generation of Brazilian chefs to work in the same direction, but a new generation of discerning diners to care about their own Brazilian ingredients. All this can be enjoyed at his magnificent restaurant Olympe, located in Jardim Botanico, a nice neighborhood in Rio.
To dine at Olympe is to experience all that classic French food once meant and to savor everything that modern Brazilian food has become. After 32 years as a carioca, the link between Brazil and France became deeply rooted in Troisgros’ work, and is perhaps the reason the food appears to become a common culture, not a mixture of two different ones.
My most recent meal at Olympe blew me away: Foie Gras served with baby yucca–cooked confit in tucupi juice (tucupi is the liquid extracted from yucca); lamb tenderloin with an açai crust and Yucca-Anna (that is the classic French Dish Pommes Anna prepared with Yucca); and passion fruit crêpe souflée. These are just a tease of what’s being delivered at Olympe.
Frederic de Maeyer is another immigrant who has helped shape Rio's fine dining scene. This Belgian chef heard all of the wonderful things about life in Brazil and decided to take a trip to the country. After a brief meeting with Troisgros, he heeded his counterpart's one piece of advice: stay. And so he did, and just a few months later was the head chef at Eça, the restaurant from the famous Brazilian jewelry company H. Stern. Located on the underground level of the store, this venue caters to power business lunch following the scene at its neighborhood Centro, the heart of the business district in downtown Rio. The service is excellent, the wine list is dazzling, and your meal will seem like a relative bargain if you walk one flight of stairs and browse the luxurious jewelry displayed at H. Stern.
My favorite dishes here are Pupunha Hearts of Palm with Egg Yolks, Langoustine with shaved Vegetables and Fruit Vinaigrette, and Chocolate Chaud Frois with a Berry Sauce. Speaking about chocolate, Frederic honors his roots and makes delicious chocolates. What could be better than a piece of jewelry from H. Stern? A box of chocolates with it, of course! In fact, a project is on the way for a chocolate store to open at the Ipanema flagship location, where Frederic will match jewelry with chocolates with Brazilian ingredients.
Zuka is one of my favorite restaurants in Rio. I love it for many reasons: it has been around for over a decade, which means that it's consistent; it is expensive but not outrageously so; it fits many different occasions from business lunch to romantic date to dinner with friends. But more importantly, I love the work of Ludmilla Soares, its chef. She is bold, audacious, wild and super smart.
Here, I recommend the Garlic-Bread-Crusted Shrimp with Lemon Risotto ( Camarões em Crosta de Pão de Alho com Risotto de Limão Siciliano). For those who are looking for something with a gamier taste, I highly recomend the Lamb with Passion Fruit–Infused Baroa Mashed Potatoes (batata baroa, aka mandioquinha, is a tuber vegetable that tastes like a cross between a potato, a yucca and a carrot).
This may be the most important restaurant to open in Rio last year, or perhaps in all of Brazil. It is a rare establishment in the carioca ocean, one that supports not just the idea of eating with ingredients from all over Brazil, but elevating them to haute cuisine. It's getting compared to Noma in Denmark, el Bulli in Spain and WD-50 in New York.
Felipe Bronze, 33, was born and raised in Rio, studied at the CIA in New York, and won a competition when he was only 20. A talented chef known as much for his cooking skills as for his ups and downs, he first tasted fame in the kitchen of Zuka. Later he worked as the executive chef for Marina Hotels.
At Oro, the magic begins before you taste your first bite of food. A piece of white candy with the word “napkin” printed on it is placed before you; as the waiter pours hot water on it, the candy magically grows into a hot towel for wiping hands. A shrimp moqueca, one of the most classic dishes of Brazilian cuisine, is served inside a crunchy stick with a coconut-curry on the side. Açai is the earth element for a salad entitled Our Earth, with other tuber vegetables native to Brazil mixed in. Feijoada, the national dish of Brazil — a sort of black bean stew filled with meats, albeit with myriad variations — is served deconstructed in the most creative and meticulous way a chef could ever think of. And we, as diners, are witness to new classics being born.
5. Aconchego Carioca
All of a sudden, Aconchego Carioca became the toughest table to get in Rio. Seven days a week, chef Katia Barbosa offers the most outgrageously faboulous comida de boteco (bar food).
I heard a lot about her famous Feijoada, and I arrived full expectations.
It is everything that I had expected, if not more. Barbosa's is another bright twist on our national dish. Another hit is the pork ribs prepared with Guava sauce, slow roasted in the oven until the meat is sliding off the bones; it's served with polenta turnovers stuffed with melting cheese inside. If it sounds decadent, it is. This kind of restaurant should define Rio dining, even if Rio is striving for fancier digs.