It’s almost 8.30pm in São Paulo. Cars are beeping their way to Vila Madalena and its bustling bars, or hurtling north-east towards the central city district. Between both, outside a small house on a quiet, nondescript street in the upscale Jardim Paulistano district, a small crowd gathers. Accents picked up from snippets of hushed conversation confirm that they’ve travelled from far and wide. They’re people in the know, for behind the doors of this small house, better known as Maní, is a culinary experience so revered, it’s earned the establishment a place in The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list.
Maní’s welcome starts with the bright entrance hallway adorned with art and windows revealing chefs making magic in the kitchen, and continues to the dimly lit dining room, all rustic architectural lines, wooden furniture and Murano glass, spilling onto the charming outdoor courtyard illuminated by flickering table candles and lanterns dangling from the trees.
It’s a charming simplicity reflected by the menu. If you’ve arrived expecting dishes with buzzwords and created using wildly experiential methods, you’ll be disappointed. Dishes are hearty, fairly simplistic and use traditional ingredients with modern, fun flair. When our playful amuse-bouche of Parmesan crisp lollipops, accompanied by tapioca and various dips, arrives, things begin to feel less like a high-end restaurant experience and more like a dinner party.
Helena Rizzo’s party in fact. Recently voted the world’s best female chef, Rizzo opened Maní in 2006 after working in the kitchens of El Celler de Can Roca in Spain, bringing her colleague (now husband) Daniel Redondo with her. The husband-and-wife team is clearly a winning formula, as we begin with savoury quinoa balls accompanied by tart celery jam, and mini baked potatoes topped with Gorgonzola and Parmesan cheese. The servings are heartier than expected, but well received — this is fine dining, Brazilian-style.
Tradition does, at times, welcome modern interpretation, without compromising familiar flavours. The Mata Atlantica salad looks like a gastronomic tour of the Amazon; a deliciously fresh take on local ingredients with a forest of exotic flowers and greens, heart of palm, mango and passion fruit drizzled with smoked vegetable oil. It arrives with the restaurant’s signature egg ‘perfecto’: an egg cooked for 2.5 hours at 63 degrees, retaining the shape of its boiled form, but boasting a poached texture.
Bellies starting to swell, we prepare our carnivorous palates for the main course. Churrasco, Brazil’s famed grilled meat, is not of the all-you-can-eat variety here, but we easily forgive this after sampling the roast beef with lapsang souchong crust, which melts in the mouth, accompanied by warm potato salad. The slow-cooked lamb with baked roots is equally comforting, a garnish of Brazil nuts and manioc flour giving the dish a gritty but enjoyable texture.
There’s a reason dessert is the finale of a dining experience, offering a sweet and (if done correctly), memorable finish. Dessert at Maní is treated with as much deserving reverence as prior courses, with a substantial and somewhat overwhelming selection on the menu. Time to enlist the help of a very knowledgeable waiter, who recommends
some flavours of the tropics.
The coconut panna cotta that arrives a short time later doesn’t disappoint. It’s surrounded by fort of creamy rum and white chocolate ice-cream, and pineapple pearls that release a zesty burst in the mouth that cuts through the richness. The açai bowl with guarana jelly, banana, oatmeal and brown sugar could easily pass for breakfast, were it not for the cheeky additions of strawberry puree, marshmallow and açai ice-cream. It’s a playful end to a meal that has been generous, fun, colourful and mindful of tradition; the spirit of Brazil from start to finish.
THE IMPORTANT BIT
Where: 210 Rua Joaquim Antunes, São Paulo, Brazil
Price: approx. $300 for two people, including wine
Tel: +55 11 3085 4148