Until a recent trip to Rio de Janeiro I thought Alex Atala at D.O.M. in São Paulo was the only chef diving head first into Amazonian ingredients in Brazil. I was wrong. Another chef, Roland Villard, at Rio’s Le Pré Catelan inside the Hotel Sofitel on Copacabana Beach, is just as intimate with these exotic ingredients. If not, more so. The French chef, serves an 11 Course Amazonian Tasting Menu that ranks among the best meals I have ever had the pleasure of eating.
Villard is not usually mentioned in the same breath as Alex Atala and Claude Troigros outside of Brazil because he is in fact, technically at least, a corporate chef for Sofitel. In Brazil, however, the Guia Quatro Rodas has ranked him an equivalent of three Michelin stars (and even chef of the year) and he is one of the most highly regarded chefs in the country. He is the only chef in the country that belongs to the Academy of French Culinary Arts. Le Pré Catelan is also considered one of the ten best hotel restaurants in the world by Hotel World Magazine.
The restaurant serves a contemporary French-international menu, but it’s their Amazon menu that caught my attention. Three years of research went in to the design of the menu and finding the suppliers of the traditionally hard to source Amazonian ingredients. From the first course I was swept up in the magic of the experience. The Brandade – a Provençal preparation of salted cod – was transformed with tucunaré fish and coconut milk. It was served in a hand carved bowl from the Marajó indigenous group and, instead of a spoon, the scale of a pirarucu fish (paiche in Spanish) was provided. Sharing the same plate were Tapioca biju crêpes filled with flat lobster and fresh hearts of palm. A brilliantly flavored pepper jelly adjoined it. While later courses might challenge, this in my mind is the one Amazonian plate being served anywhere on the continent to beat.
Next came a pastry shell filled with Siri crab meat, tapioca and sagu pearls, and topped with bacuri (a yellowish orang fruit with a slightly sweet, slight acidic flavor) sauce. This was followed by Pirarucu fish in a cashew crust with a tucupi and jambu consommé. Jambu is a curious herb,it looks like watercress, but has mouth numbing effects and is used widely in Belém. The sensation was minimal here, however.
After a Murici sorbet to clean my palate, came the Moqueca style blinis and grilled shrimp with a savory Brazil nut cream. One of my new favorite Amazonian plates is the use of Tambaqui ribs. Tambaqui is a meter long freshwater fish that sort of resembles a giant piranha. It sometimes is called Pacu too. It has huge, meaty ribs that can be grilled and served like a lamb rib. I had it a few days before while lunching at the Fasano hotel’s Al Mare restaurant. Villard served it with smoked baroa potato purée and an herb sauce. A cashew sorbet followed, then came a breaded manioc confit of beef ribs, with the deep cherry like flavored jabuticaba sauce and terra banana marmalade with bacon.
There wasn’t any room for dessert, but I made room. Villard’s pastry chef was equally as impressive. Incorporating molecular gastronomy into the Amazon is seems to make sense. At least it did here. Out came what they called a “chocolate surprise.” It looks exactly like a Hostess Snowball in size and texture, but was filled with a rich coconut cream. Açaí, cupuaçu and taperebá sorbets ended the dinner.
During my meal, the flavor or plating of dish was not affected one bit by working with these ingredients. I would even say they were enhanced. The menu is one of the most impressive feats of a Frenchman in South America since Papillon. This is a meal I would, and probably will, order again and again. Word has it that Villard is working on a tasting menu with every dish using rice and beans. Count me in.
Le Pré Catelan
Av. Atlântica 4240
Rio de Janeiro, 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.