Brazilian cuisine is heating up. After all, Brazil is on the rise, with a booming economy, the 2014 World Cup, and the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
Geopolitics aside, Brazilian cuisine is simply delicious. Meaty, garlicky, rich with dende (palm oil) and often fried, Brazilian dishes are neither healthy nor refined.
But Rio visitors can balance caloric, crispy croquetas with fruit shakes from sucos bars. Found on virtually every block of Rio, these juice stands whip up Amazonian fruit smoothies from açai, carambola, pinha, umbu, and the ubiquitous maracuja (passionfruit).
The five outstanding eateries here will give visitors a memorable taste of Brazil's lively, irresistible luxury travel destination, Rio de Janeiro.
Casa de Feijoada
Feijoada, a garlicky stew of meat and black beans, is Brazil's national dish. Cariocas (Rio residents) are almost unanimous in proclaiming Casa de Feijoada's version as the best in Rio (and therefore Brazil).
Casa de Feijoada is a busy spot in Rio's posh beachside Ipanema district. The restaurant is cozy, with a tropical, rattan-walled look and family-style table service.
Most parties begin their Casa de Feijoada meal with a pitcher of fresh-squeezed fruit "caipis" (caiparinhas). The feast then commences with a tiny cup of garlicky bean soup followed by an assortment of olives, cheese cubes, and mild red peppers.
Then the feijoada fixins arrive: black beans, white rice, shredded kale, pork cracklings, farofa (crunchy manioc flour), and fried, potato-like manioc root.
The main ingredient is served: a giant pot of meats swimming in saucy beans. The tureen is piled high with sausages (smoked linguiça, peppery chouriço); carne seca ham; and other pork cuts. (Natives, but not norteamericanos, are served the pig's ears, tail and tongue.) Combine all the ingredients and dig in. Pace yourself, and watch out for the deadly malagueta peppers.
- Casa de Feijoada: Rua Prudente de Moraes 10, Ipanema, Rio de Janeiro
Fogo de Chao was founded in Brazil in 1979. It now has dozens of branches in its home country and in the U.S.
Why would someone who has dined at a Fogo de Chao in America want to try a Fogo de Chao in Rio?
It's a spectacle and the "chao" is great, that's why. Fogo de Chao adds undeniable showmanship and flair to the classic Brazilian meat-on-skewers meal called churrascaria or rodizio.
If you were expecting the usual South American cowboy décor, forget it. Fogo de Chao in Rio's Botafogo neighborhood occupies a gigantic, UFO-shaped concrete structure. This improbable setting was designed by a student of fabled Rio architect Oscar Niemeyer, who turned 104 in 2011. But what will impress you even more is inside.
The churrascaria meal format will be familiar: trips to a salad bar followed by the carnivorous main event. Passadores (meat waiters) brandishing sword-like skewers of various cuts of beef, lamb, and chicken won't quit until you cry tio.
Fogo de Chao's salad bar features items unknown in North America, like fresh pupuna hearts of palm and a fluffy black rice variety called arroz negro.
Meat is impeccable at Fogo de Chao, whether tender grass-fed Uruguayan beef (my favorite) or more rugged Brazilian cuts. Your beef menu is an illustration of a steer delineated into 24 sections that show you where's the beef, with each cut's Portuguese name.
Mercifully, desserts are a la carte at Fogo de Chao. The delectable maracuja parfait, a passionfruit cream, is a perfect ending.
- Fogo de Chao: Avenida Reporter Nestor Moreira, Botafogo, Rio de Janeiro (plus two other locations in Rio)
- Fogo de Chao website
Living in Vegas, I'm choosy about buffets. But Cariocas do all-you-can-eats right. And the lunch buffet at Pérgula restaurant, in the venerable Copacabana Palace luxury hotel, may be the best in Rio.
Pérgula's lunch begins with a dazzling array of salads and light dishes like smoked salmon and a Caprese salad (tomato, mozzarella, basil) that no Italian would be ashamed to eat.
A parade of hot dishes that change daily will follow. I savored Pérgula's chicken redolent of fines herbes; proper spaghetti with garlic and oil; double-thick lamb chops crusted with rosemary; and a cornucopia of other Italian-inflected treats.
But perhaps most impressive is Pérgula's dessert selection. It tempts with pastries and ice creams; exotic fruits; parfaits topped with jabuticaba, a red berry that grows only in Brazil; and ripe French cheeses such as nutty Comté and buttery Brie. Warm pao de queijo, thumb-sized cheese rolls that constitute a Carioca cult, are addictive.
Pérgula guests may opt to dine indoors or on an open-air terrace overlooking the hotel's elegant pool. Pérgula serves three meals a day. Daily breakfast and Sunday brunch are buffets. Lunch is both buffet and a la carte. Saturday lunchtime brings feijoada Brazilian stew.
- Pérgula: Copacabana Palace Hotel, Avenida Atlantica 1702, Caopcabana, Rio de Janeiro
- Pérgula web page
A few minutes' walk from the San Christovao Metro station, Rio visitors discover some of the most innovative, exciting fare in town. Expect a full house at white-hot Aconchego Carioca. It's a botequim, a casual, Portuguese-style neighborhood eatery, but a super-trendy one.
Autodidact chef Katia Barbosa is heavily influenced by Afro-Brazilian cooking. Many of her creations call on the ingredients and rituals of Africa and of Bahia farther north on the Brazilian coast. Galinha a la Angola, stewed chicken with African piri piri chile pepper, okra and onion, is one of Rio's best dishes.
The Carioca in the kitchen loves to transform traditional Brazilian dishes into bolinhos, wonderful, bite-sized croquettes. Aconchego Carioca's bolinho de feijoada is a black bean fritter with salty kale and bacon inside. The codfish with chickpeas and onions (bolinho de bacalao) is nutty like falafel, with a creamy center like a brandade spread. Both bolinhos are simply brilliant.
When I peeked at the menu and saw that Chef Katia's cordeiritos appetizer had won the Doritos Challenge for 2010, I sighed. Then I tasted the dish, and saw the eminent point of minced, spiced lamb on a bed of creamy polenta topped with crushed…Doritos.
Aconchego Carioca's don't-miss dessert is cachaça flan, a coconut pudding in a dreamy sauce of butter and sugar. Its unfamiliar tang comes from cachaça, Brazil's potent sugarcane rum.
The restaurant's name means both "Rio comfort" and "cuddly Rio person." Aconchega Carioca diners go there to find both.
- Aconchego Carioca: Rue Barao de Iguatemi 379, Praça de Bandeira, Rio de Janeiro
Abençoado means "blessed" in Portuguese. Given this casual restaurant and bar's perch halfway to the summit of Pao de Açucar (Sugar Loaf Mountain), the name is a propos. Abençoado diners get there by cable car to Morro de Urca, and the views are incomparable.
Abencoado's snack-like dishes and cocktails are terrific. The specialty drink is the caipirinha, Brazil's national libation. Variations involve various fruit purees: the expected lime and strawberry and the unusual, alluring abacaxi(pineapple) mingled with ginger.
The perfect food pairing for caipis is fried finger food: Abençoado's codfish fritters, meat croquettes, shrimp turnovers, and sweet empadas, flaky pastries. The empada de palmito, filled with hearts of palm not out of a can, has an impossible richness that will tempt you to return to Abençoado.
- Abençoado: Avenida Pasteur 520, Morro de Urca, Rio de Janeiro