£135 smackers. That’s a lot to spend on one meal. Just think what else you could get for that: Thirteen burgers, with fries; 16 pizzas; 25 falafel wraps; you get the picture. In many ways, it’s a grotesque amount to charge for a single meal, yet that’s what I paid at D.O.M, a two-Michelin starred restaurant in the heart of São Paulo, made famous when head chef Alex Atala featured on series two of Netflix’s Chef’s Table.
Atala was arguably the most interesting chef on that season of the celebrated docuseries, which launched its sixth last month. After a relatively rock’n’roll lifestyle, he found his calling as a chef in Paris, through a rather circuitous route, and came back to Brazil to make his name.
What most appeals is that Atala has reached fame and fortune not through the tried and tested course of French and Italian rip-offs in a city where those cuisines were considered posh and local fare frowned upon. Instead, he stayed true to his roots, drew on his knowledge of the latest cheffy techniques, and married the two together, creating what many now consider to be the best restaurant in South America and the flagbearer for modern Brazilian cuisine.
Which is why, on a recent trip to Brazil’s largest city, I decided to stump up much more than I’d usually spend on food for a chance to eat at D.O.M. As a half-Brazilian, and someone who’s visited almost every year since I was born, Brazilian food isn’t new to me. However, it’s always been, in my experience, hearty and homey: black bean and pork stews, barbecues, fresh salads, unbeatable fresh fruit. I was ready to learn.
D.O.M is, you won’t be surprised to hear, situated in a quiet, tree-lined backstreet in one of central São Paulo’s most exclusive neighbourhoods; its Kensington, if you will. The decor is modern and stripped back, there are maybe a dozen tables with a calm open kitchen; service is impeccable – knowledgeable without being overbearing. Your choice is between the tasting menu and the very reasonably priced worker’s lunch, a heartfelt nod to Brazil’s national dish, feijoada (the aforementioned black bean stew).
But we’re here for the party piece, of course. And we were delighted to hear that, for the restaurant’s 20-year anniversary, the menu is almost entirely made up of ingredients found pre-European conquest. It’s a timely concept, and Atala works closely with indigenous producers, crucial in an era when Brazil’s new president’s wishes to erode native rights. Ultimately, and most importantly, it’s delicious.
Our 10-course menu began with perhaps Atala’s most famous dish: ants. The chunky, beastly Amazonian insect is packed with a rather surprising secret: it tastes of ginger and lemongrass, which makes it a rather delicious spice when ground up. Here, one is presented whole and uncooked, crisp and piquant. It’s not unpleasant. A second comes inside a crystalised sugar shell, swimming in cachaça, which bursts in the mouth. Delicious.
We’re then taken on a journey through the country. Some highlights: a roast duck so tender and rare it barely needed chewing, swimming in tucupi (fermented manioc root broth). Pirarucu, a gargantuan, prehistoric-looking Amazonian river fish, meatier than steak, on a manioc flour and dried beef bed in a fish gravy is possibly the best fish I’ve had.
A smorgasbord of nibbles celebrating Brazil’s national root: manioc. And, my favourite, grilled cashew fruit with barely cooked mini-scallops and bone marrow. So delightfully, meltingly fatty it’s almost upsetting: because nothing can live up to it.
Desserts, and Brazilian wine, were on par with anything you’ll find in France, Italy or Spain (something, believe me, I never thought I’d say).
Authenticity is a horrible word. Certainly, this isn’t what Brazilians eat every day. In a country with such glaring polarity between rich and poor, it’s regrettably not something most could afford. But Atala is challenging the concept of what Brazilian cuisine can be. Eating here is as educational as it is delectable, at several stages it feels practically like a lecture. Twenty years on, Atala’s mission is as important as ever. For any food lover, D.O.M is the necessary stop in this wild and exciting city. Save up if you have to, just don’t miss it.