On any given morning in São Paulo, hundreds of street markets unfurl across the city with the rising sun. Under striped canopies, Amazonian berries, fruits and roots sit alongside chubby oranges, juicy pineapples and freshly pulled potatoes. The tidy rows demonstrate Brazil’s brilliant colour palette and natural abundance, and here, in the country’s largest and most diverse city, give an indication of the dining on offer.
The city has welcomed a steady stream of immigrants since the 1800s so some neighbourhoods are dominated by Japanese or Italian restaurants. Lebanese, Koreans and, more recently, Syrians have made the city home too, bringing with them delicious flavours and world-class cuisine.
At the two Michelin-starred D.O.M., chef Alex Atala has been leading a culinary revolution. In a city that’s always looked to France for haute cuisine, bearded Atala has shown diners just how sophisticated Brazilian cooking can be. Using ingredients like tapioca or tucupi from the cassava root, mushrooms from the rainforest and even giant ants, Atala has instilled pride in the country’s produce and encouraged curiosity among the city’s chefs. Consequently, a new wave of restaurants is sourcing inspiration and ingredients from the homeland.
Following your taste buds is an excellent way to explore São Paulo. Though monstrous in size (around 12 million people live here), its neighbourhoods are distinct and eclectic. In Pinheiros, a young and creative area, restaurants are popping up in houses, taking over gardens and reclaiming industrial spaces. New openings in places like Centro and Barra Fundo are enticing diners across town, and food trucks are multiplying like ants.
D.O.M.: Chef Alex Atala’s two Michelin-starred restaurant is where folk go to worship at the altar of Brazilian fine dining. In two decades, D.O.M. has put Brazil’s native ingredients and Atala’s force of personality on the plate, and garnished it with Amazonian ants.
Restaurante Fasano: For some of the best Italian this side of Sardinia, sink into the leather chairs and enjoy the exemplary service at Fasano Hotel’s famed restaurant. Contemporary dishes such as oyster carpaccio sit alongside classics like ossobucco (veal shanks braised with vegetables). Finish the evening with knock-out nightcaps at piano bar, Baretto.
Mocotó: Named after a cow foot stew popular in the country’s north-east, Mocotó’s hearty fare draws a near-constant queue (no reservations). The mocotó is the obvious choice but try the gooey cheesy golden dadinhos of tapioca with sweet chilli sauce, and some of the 100 artisan cachaças.
A Figueira Rubaiyat: One of the joys of eating out in São Paulo is that you’re often surrounded by the city’s ever-pressing plants and foliage. At A Figueira Rubaiyat, there’s a 160ft-tall fig tree under which diners feast on beef from the owner’s ranch, heart of palm and overflowing platters of fresh seafood.
Arturito: Its steel and glass walls are adorned in tumbling greens. Mostly local, organic, traceable and often biodynamic, the food’s quality sings in dishes like beetroot gnocchi with sage butter or wild shrimps al ajillo cooked over a wood fire.
Chou: Diners at charming Chou are dotted around the house and garden, lit by dangling festoon lights. Chargrilled and expertly barbecued treats arrive from the open-fire grill, like fresh octopus with Spanish paprika and lemon or buttered sweet potato. The informal surroundings and sharing menu make it particularly convivial.
A Casa do Porco: The House of Pork is dedicated entirely to swine. The whole hog is dished up in inventive ways, from croquettes and blood sausage, to grilled tongue and pancetta crackling with guava jam.
Capivara Bar: Behind graffitied shutters, diners share tables, cutlery is mismatched and the fish-focused menu is pinned to the wall daily. In the kitchen, however, is a disciple of Alex Atala and the cooking has plenty of craft and flavour.
Café Habitual: Brunch has been slow to catch on in Brazil, but Café Habitual has taken on the concept with enthusiasm. Beautifully presented dishes, especially the Turkish eggs Benedict, win accolades along with the lovely cakes and fresh green juices.
Coffee Lab: For a coffee-growing country, it can be pitifully hard to find a decent cup in Brazil. Some paulistas, however, are waking up to this. Coffee Lab, in Pinheiros, has led the way, educating, experimenting and advising drinkers as well as serving its own blends using multiple pressing techniques.
The established newcomers
Barú Marisquería: Acclaimed chef Dagoberto Torres is devoted to the fish and seafood of Latin America. The signature ceviche sits among the petiscos. Try the Tiquira Tônica, a cocktail mixed with a spirit distilled from manioc root.
Futuro Refeitório: Housed in a former car park (yellow and black lines still run along the walls), Futuro Refeitório is an all-day cafeteria, buffet and bakery started by two sisters. The food is mostly vegetarian, moreish and nutritious — try the black rice salad bowl with coconut, pumpkin and seeds.
Bráz Elettrica: Eating pizza is a national pastime in Brazil. Cooked in electric ovens, the style of pizza at Elettrica is inspired by Naples with the recipes conceived in New York by pizza guru Anthony Falco.
Hot Pork: Haven’t got the appetite for a pig-out at A Casa do Porco? Then seek out the food truck run by the same team. The hot dogs come with careful squeezes of homemade mayonnaise and tucupi mustard dotted along the milk bun. The veggie tofu dogs also get squeals of approval.
Five to try: Amazonian food finds
Bitter-tasting raw cacao beans are packed with nutrients and often added to cakes, made into butter or grated on top of dishes as a garnish.
Cashew nuts grow on the bottom of the caju fruit, whose mottled orange skin contains sweet pearly flesh, which muddles beautifully in a caipirinha.
This freshwater fish native to the Amazon basin has firm, meaty flesh and can grow to be around 10ft.
A flavoursome stock that’s made from reducing the juice extracted from manioc root after it’s been peeled and grated.
A small, antioxidant-rich purple berry, açaí is served as a sorbet laden with granola and banana, and drizzled in honey.
Six dishes to try
Sanduiche de Mortadela
Packed to bursting with thick slices of meat topped with cheese, the city’s famous mortadella sandwiches’ gargantuan proportions came about after one bar owner responded to complaints that he was scrimping on his fillings.
In its distinctive can, Guaraná Antarctica is Brazil’s home-grown soft drink. It’s made with guaraná, a small red energy-giving Amazonian berry that has twice the concentration of stimulant of caffeine in coffee beans.
Brazil’s national cocktail is a simple concoction of cachaça (sugar-cane rum), ice, lime and sugar. The lime can be substituted for other fruits, like mango, tangerine or passionfruit. If the sweetness is too much, swap the cachaça for vodka or sake, and ask for it ‘sem açúcar’ (without sugar).
Thought to have originated outside São Paulo’s factories during industrialisation, coxinhas are teardrop-shaped dollops of breaded batter filled with juicy, seasoned shredded chicken. Eat fresh and douse the hot centre liberally with chilli sauce.
Pasteis (plural) are arguably the most popular of Brazilian petiscos (small bites). These pillowy rectangles or crescents of pastry come filled with shrimp, sun-dried meat or white cheese and are fried in vegetable oil. They go well with a cold beer.
Traditionally served at night, the hand-chopped stewed beef is essential, but any of the following can be subbed in or out: rice, black beans, spring greens, crisps and a fried egg. Best served with toasted manioc crumbs or farofa, with banana for sweetness.
Published in the South America guide, distributed with the October issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)