When Alex Atala banned foie gras and truffles from the menu at D.O.M., São Paulo’s smartest restaurant, his regular clientele were outraged. “People became upset,” the chef recalls of his controversial decision to ditch conventional haute cuisine and create his own. “And also rude.”
But six years on, he has pioneered a Brazilian cuisine that showcases the country’s endemic ingredients and traditions. The initial outrage has yielded to the delight of new gastronomic discoveries and D.O.M. is now ranked among the top 10 eating experiences on Earth by the influential World’s 50 Best Restaurants guide.
It’s a similar story at Pujol in Mexico City, Central in Lima and Boragó in Santiago – each has elevated its respective cuisines from humble origins to high art. Nine Latin American addresses made it into Restaurant magazine’s annual list in 2015; here are my top five.
D.O.M. – São Paulo, Brazil
World’s 50 Best ranking No. 9
In the jetset suburb of Jardim Paulista, a security guard hauls open the heavy black door of D.O.M. to reveal a soaring space of six-metre ceilings and a statement Philippe Starck chandelier. But all eyes are drawn to a shiny glass box at the back where Alex Atala and a troupe of white-toqued chefs create cuisine that has, according to Time magazine, “mesmerised the continent”. Atala emerges regularly to greet guests with a high-beam smile. He asks if I am open to new experiences then decides he’ll serve me 10 courses with matching wines. Five hours later the tally is 17 courses, my wallet is $500 lighter and my brain is fizzing with first-in-a-lifetime food moments.
The stand-out menu memories are saúva ants, used as a spice by the Amazonian Baniwa tribe, positioned on pineapple cubes. Biting into the exoskeleton releases a balsamic wave of lemongrass, galangal, even eucalyptus, against the sugar-sweet pineapple. Filhote, a juvenile catfish that tastes like roast pork, comes with the added surprise of jambu, an anaesthetic cress that leaves the mouth numb and buzzing as if it’s just had a minor electric shock. (Atala laughs at my panicked face then reassures me it’s meant to feel just like that.) The menu also references Brazilian favourites; there’s pão de queijo (cheese bread) and manioc (cassava) in its myriad forms. Dining at D.O.M. is an adventure into the simple and complex, the familiar and foreign – though mostly foreign.
An unforgettable evening, not least for the way every staff member makes this solo diner feel like the most important person in the room.
The first time I ate at Central three years ago, I wasn’t sure what all the fuss was about. The dishes felt too try-hard in execution, the descriptions too laboured, the whole event too referential to celebrated restaurants elsewhere – the “Noma effect”, if you like. Great restaurants take time to evolve and Central in 2015 is now, clearly, an extraordinary experience. Chef Virgilio Martínez’s 17-course Mater Elevations tasting menu is arranged conventionally by portion size and unconventionally by the altitudes at which ingredients are found. Meals are served on broken plates, in seashells, on volcanic rock and stones.
Contrived? Almost certainly. But the proof is on the plate, broken or otherwise, and on the palate. Martínez’s peculiar, whimsical preparations are deeply surprising and satisfying. The show begins with Spiders on a Rock, described sparely on the menu as “Sargassum [a type of seaweed]. Limpet. Crab. Sea Snail” – all harvested from rocks five metres beneath sea level and assembled on a dish of porous stone to create a savoury bomb. The textures range from creamy to crunchy and leave the mouth feeling salty from the sea.
“Andean Plateau” – altitude 3900 metres – is the bread course that includes smoky, springy coca-leaf rolls with an aroma alarmingly like marijuana. Marine Soil (minus 20 metres) is a still-life of razor clams under folds of sweet cucumber and lime. The potent brininess of the clams crashes the garden party in the nicest possible way. There are so many unfamiliar foods but Martínez devotes his life to uncovering Peru’s indigenous culinary heritage so I have complete trust in his good taste. Except, perhaps, for airampo – a cactus fruit that, to me, smells like fresh bandages.
Pujol – Mexico City, Mexico
World’s 50 Best ranking No. 16
The big surprises of Pujol, the finest restaurant in the 21-million-strong metropolis of Mexico City, are its modest dining room – just 13 or 14 tables in the posh Polanco neighbourhood – and the fact most of the menu is meat-free. Enrique Olvera’s fine diner has evolved from haute French to haute Mexican since he opened it 15 years ago. As he delves deeper into the traditions and origins of Mexican ingredients, the menu has become a largely pre-Hispanic affair that does its best to avoid meats and other exotic produce introduced by Spanish conquerors.
At the table this translates to exquisitely arranged dishes rooted in age-old traditions. Bread is fermented with pulque, a natural agave-based alcohol, rather than yeast. A soft-boiled egg sits in a nest-like infladita (fried tortilla) with a piquant salsa made from grasshoppers ground in a molcajete, the Mexican mortar and pestle. Baby corncobs, smeared in mayonnaise flavoured with coffee and ground flying ants, nestle inside a hollowed gourd on a bed of smouldering husks. A single pumpkin flower, stuffed with dried black chilli and fried beans (the best I taste during a bean-filled month in Mexico), is cased in a glass dome like a prized exhibit.
Pujol is a remarkably sophisticated expression of Mexican food traditions that are recognised by UNESCO as belonging to the “intangible cultural heritage of humanity”. “To me, what we have in Mexico that most countries don’t have is a great diversity of climates and enormous tradition,” says Olvera. “This is what we are strong at and we should build on that.”
Maido – Lima, Peru
World’s 50 Best ranking No. 44
Entering Maido is a disorienting sensation. From the comfortably moneyed streets of Miraflores, beside Peru’s Pacific coastline, guests ascend a spiral staircase into a mirrored room where a forest of red and white painted ropes hang from the ceiling. Depending on where diners sit, they will see either the Peruvian or Japanese flag reflected back at them – a clever visual trick that captures the essence of Maido’s cuisine. Chef Mitsuharu Tsumura explores the century-old traditions of Nikkei, Peruvian cuisine made by Japanese immigrants. “It’s sort of like me,” he explains. “If I walk in the street people would think I am Japanese but I feel more Peruvian than a potato.”
There are ceviche and sushi bars at Maido but the main event is the 16-course Nikkei tasting menu. It begins with the umami blast of bonito tartare, quail yolk, shavings of two-year-old dried bonito (katsuobushi) and a separate bowl of chawan mushi spiked with earthy Porcón mushrooms, fish eggs and spring onion slithers. It’s the last thing I expected to eat in Lima but possibly also the best thing. There are other revelations: a lapas (limpet) ceviche, warm with chilli and sharp with the tang of the citrous marinade – leche de tigre (tiger’s milk). And a wedge of beef short rib braised for 50 hours and heady with ginger. But these are offset by some pairings that leave my palate recoiling – the violent taste of prawn coral smeared underneath an otherwise winning combination of river prawns and flying fish roe, and a too-chewy pigeon nigiri. But then Mr Guinea Pig comes along and saves the night. Cuy San is the finest example of Peru’s favourite rodent that I have tasted. Eating guinea pig is usually a trial of tiny bones but at Maido the creature is deboned, fried in duck fat and then pressed into a petite log that, the waiter points out, includes every edible part of the animal – “the head, the body, the arms…” Served with buttery yucca cream, it’s better than pork belly. Seriously.
Boragó – Santiago, Chile
World’s 50 Best ranking No. 42
Chilean chef Rodolfo Guzmán is an intense man of varied talents. His background is in chemical and bioprocess engineering. He is a mad-keen surfer, a television celebrity and a passionate advocate of Chilean produce. But what he does best is cook. An alumnus of the revered two-Michelin-starred Mugaritz restaurant in Spain’s Basque Country, Guzmán runs an understated restaurant in the fashionable Santiago suburb of Vitacura, where diners can graze the length, breadth and height of Chile without leaving the table. “We want to show people Chile,” says Guzmán. “Endemic, wild things you can only find here. We know there are a few restaurants doing similar things but we don’t believe this is a fashion – we just wanted to look into ourselves and look at our cuisine.”
The menu changes constantly, thanks to Guzmán’s obsession with showcasing ingredients at their peak. His plates are like the pages of a calendar reflecting the seasons, months, even weeks of the year. A meal might start with a detour to Patagonia for murra berries to spike the pisco sour welcome cocktails. On one visit there are baby pears coated in pine ferns and hanging by hooks from a bonsai Chilean elm. The aesthetics and the theatre of receiving your very own bonsai at table are impressive, even if the flavours seem muddled in translation. In late winter, Chilean morels might be served warming over embers in a tiny table brazier. Conger eel arrives on a rhomboid of granite with fiddlehead-like ferns from remote Chiloé Island. Tenderised, meaty locos – small carnivorous abalone – get an aniseed hit from wild herbs. Boragó is a fascinating ride but it’s perhaps not as much fun as it could be. The silent kitchen, the reverential way dishes are described and served, feel a bit too ascetic. It lacks that liberal dose of indulgence that defines the most memorable meals. ￼