A giant black door that must be at least 15 feet high separates the outside world from the wild jungle inside. This is D.O.M. in São Paulo, Brazilian chef Alex Atala’s signature restaurant and is included on San Pellegrino’s list of the World’s Top 50 restaurants. Many would say it belongs in the top ten. Atala, a one time DJ, was trained in classical French cuisine, though he no longer serves foie gras and truffles on his menu. He serves strictly Brazilian food, the flavors of his youth, though he has reinvented them masterfully.
D.O.M. is an acronym for Deo Optimo Maximo, which means “God is Optimum and Maximum” (optimum in wisdom and maximum in forgiveness). The name would be a bold statement for any restaurant, though not here. After eliminating foie gras from his already adventurous menu, he’s moved to incorporate more and more Brazilian – especially Amazonian – ingredients into his dishes. Along with Pedro Miguel Schiaffino in Lima, Atala is redefining everything we know about Amazon ingredients. They have strange effects and flavors. There are herbs that numb your mouth and river fish that feed on fruit. Palm heart is spun into fettuccini like noodles. He uses them all. Multi course tasting menus will set you back an arm and a leg, but you’ll never have a meal quite like it again.
The restaurant has an earthy, black, grey, and brown interior. There 2 person tables (wall side are couches) on the outside of the main dining room and few larger tables in the center. One corner features a collection of woodcarvings from the Amazon and Africa, masks, heads, fish, etc. This continues on into the kitchen (seen through a window into the restaurant), where these items seem to have mated with each other and reproduced.
Dishes are A la Carte or from several tasting menus (4 courses, 8 courses, and Vegetable Kingdom). Every dish is tempting, though I opted for the Vegetable Kingdom Menu paired with juices/fruit essences (I ordered wine on the side too). First comes a Tomato salad with watermelon water, parsley, beldroega, and mozzarella. It floated in a glass bowl and was more soupy than an Italian tomato salad. It was paired with a sparkling water with rosemary and limão-rosa (typical Brazilian lime). The combo set the mood. My tastebuds were awakened. The juice/fruit essence pairing was interesting and I’m surprised it isn’t done more often. After the sparkling water came Banana water, then Pitanga juice, Cambuci juice, Bacuri juice, and finally Taperebá juice. Atala doesn’t allow altering the order or the juices, as the flavors were chosen for a reason. Most in the restaurant with this menu I noticed opted for wine instead, though I think they shouldn’t. Drink a cocktail before or a brandy after, but with this specific menu the juices are ideal.
One by one a world of flavors and textures I have never known appeared at my table. Some seemed eerily familiar in ways, like the crunchy black rice with green vegetables and Brazilian Nut milk, while others – like the Quirera (ground corn) with manteiga de garrafa, toasted butter, cream, egg yolk and caramelized milk – were not. For this, a smear of popcorn crumbles and Peruvian corn kernals were served with liquid substances in the middle. These were tiny tooth size bites packed with substance.
For the Aligot, a dish traditionally made in Southern France of melted cheese blended with mashed potato and garlic (Atala uses yucca instead of potato), a server comes out with a black iron pot, then twirls the dough in his hands like he was prepping pizza dough. He plops the off white dough on the white plate. It doesn’t look pretty. Juts a hunk of dough. Though the taste of such simple ingredients is magic. It’s rich, smoky, creamy, warm, and soothing. The portion is big, maybe a little too big, but I’d like to think that the dough helped absorb all of the tastes that came afterward. The meal finished with a lemon and banana “ravioli”, which resembled a jellyfish, with priprioca, an Amazonian root that tastes a little like Patchouli.
There was no meat or fish or wine, yet the meal cost more than $100. Still it was one of my top meals ever. *Note: Atala has opened a second restaurant a block away, Dalva e Dito, which serves contemporary versions of Brazilian classics and is more affordable.
Rua Barão de Capanema 541, Cerqueira César
São Paulo, Brazil
Writer and photographer Nicholas Gill is the editor/publisher of New World Review. He lives in Lima, Peru and Brooklyn, New York. His work has appeared in publications such as the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, CondeNast Traveler, National Geographic Traveler, Afar, and Penthouse. Visit his personal website (nicholas-gill.com) for more information.