Brazil is foodie nation: there are TONS of food bloggers in Rio and São Paulo. Very few, if any, as entertaining as the couple who write Que Bicho me Mordeu (What bug bit me): Demian Takahashi and Anna Angotti. Sadly, it's of little use to foreigners, since it's in Portuguese, but I couldn't resist translating one of their most recent posts, about the new all veggie menu lauched by celeb chef Alex Atala at his restaurant D.O.M.
Here it goes:
August 17, 2009 by Anna Angotti
We're not the types who go to D.O.M. like we go to the corner store. A special motive is needed, something to celebrate, or an extra bit of cash in the bank account, any good excuse. The launch of the Menu do Reino Vegetal, totally vegetarian, seem to fit very well in the category “good excuse”. Especially since it's a little bit cheaper than the regular tasting menu: R$ 120 for 6 courses (plus aligot, silky and ellastic mashed potatoes laced with two types of cheese). We had to try it with the pairing with waters and juices, for an additional R$ 20 per person.
First, cubes of watermelon with a delicious cream of Brazil nut under two slices of heart of palm "carpaccio" marinated in citronella, which came with three types of algae, all a bit salty.
The components were interesting and the presentation, beautiful, but when we actually had forkfuls - being careful to have a tiny bit of everything on the fork, as the maître'd instructed, we both were puzzled. We couldn't get the dish - not even after washing it down with the lemongrass water they brought as pairing, more aromatic than tasteful.
The mushroom consommé with Amazonian herbs - an Atala classic - didn't wow us as it did the first time we had it. Had the recipe been changed? Or is it because we're already used to the complexity of tucupi and the variety of mushrooms and the tingling sensation brought by the jambu, and our tastebuds grew immune to the sublety?
Musings aside, it's still an incredible dish, with its myriad miniature petals and broth full of secrets. It was paired with a water flavoured with poejo (“a herb”, explained the waiter), that we found a bit tasteless. It's a distant cousin of mint...
The toasted black rise was amusingly crunchy and came with vegetables (leek, celery, broccoli, asparagus), and, as a sauce, a milk made from Brazil nuts. To drink, a very acidic sparkling lime water.
At that point, we started to get what was bothering about the vegetarian menu: other than the mushrooms in the consommé, the vegetables weren't the star of the dishes, they played second fiddle. And yet we were expecting to find the lost flavour of vegetables (blame it on Keller!) Or, at the very least, we expected the inventions to be so marvellous that we couldn't find time to think of all the little things that could be improved.
But then came the evening's most sensational dish, to break our theory that too much fussiness was masking the real flavours of the veggies. “Quiabo, quiabo e quiabo”, or "Okra, okra and okra". Except for the complex, umami-heavy broth - which the maître'd claimed was made from grilled veggies - the dish really is all about okra. In different textures: the seeds, grilled and in spicy paper form.
Incredible: the okra, of all dishes, was the one that had all that we were looking for: surprise, flavour, bringing to the forefront an unusual ingredient. It was paired with a juice of cambuci (exotic fruit) but by then we'd given up on the whole pairing idea and discovered that our wine (a Grüner) matched the dishes much better.
Cream of shiitake served with flair tableside, out of a whipped cream canister, with red wine reduction. The maître d' confused us by saying there was veal in the dish. Since when is veal a vegetable?! But we later found out it was a mix up: the same dish is on the à la carte menu in a version containing veal... We found it a bit sticky and cloying, but it might be nice on a cold night. At least, the pairing actually worked: the jabuticaba juice, light and slightly acidic, was a nice counterpoint to the porridgy dish.
More thoughts: the menu tends to be repetitive, with mushrooms in two dishes (although very differently prepared), two with Brazil nuts and three where some kind of broth was added tableside. Still, each time they poured the broths we watched wantingly as they paraded away with the gravy dishes still half-full. The water and juices were also poured sparingly - two fingers, no more -, but in this case we didn't mind a bit.
For dessert, a small work of art: transparent raviolis filled with banana, lime jelly and priprioca - a fun root that smells like pot, which Atala is credited with introducing to haute cuisine circles. "D.O.M. is the only place that has it", proudly said the waiter, not knowing Dalva e Dito, right nextdoor, has it too.
As the menu informs, Menu do Reino Vegetal will change every two weeks. But we'll give it a little time before going back. Surely at some point we'll suddenly get a craving for the Okra, okra and okra (don't let it go off the menu!). But that dish only doesn't cut it as a "good excuse" to take us back to D.O.M.
More Alex Atala on this blog: