The cobbled, hilly streets of Santa Teresa have become a rival to Ipanema and Copacabana for more adventurous food-lovers over recent years. Those who manage to make the trek up the hill (access to Santa Teresa has become more difficult following a fatal accident on the bonde tramline in 2011, closing it until further notice), will be rewarded with unlikely sounding concoctions such as savoury açaí dips and cinnamon-infused cocktails at the Amazonian outpost, Espírito Santa.
The restaurant, in a charming nineteenth century building, sits right beside the tramline, and just off the main hustle and bustle of the bohemian neighbourhood’s bars and galleries. Chef Natacha Fink, who hails from Manaus, conjures up inventive Brazilian dishes inspired by her Amazonian roots, and strikes a good balance between laidback style and attention to detail.
From the addition of creamy coconut, plantain or flecks of Brazil nut to the rice, to tiny, sweet biquinho chilli peppers perched atop the fried-bean balls, there is a harmony of Fink’s influences in both presentation and flavour. Order as widely and as adventurously as possible and the reward is a rather unique culinary journey.
The best seats in the house are found on the small balcony looking out over the hillside, the perfect spot from which to savour one of the creative cocktails like the sateré maué (R$13.50) a refreshing blend of vodka, guaraná, orange juice and ginger best teamed with one of the many starter platters. Of these, the caranguejo com pacovão (R$21.50) sits rich dollops of crab on top of plantain chunks, while the trouxinhas de axé (R$26) brings six green leaves filled with exquisite Bahian-style shrimp vatapá and served with a dendê palm oil-flavoured farofa.
Freshwater fish dominates here, all the dishes simply prefixed namorado rather than given their local name to help avoid any confusion, but the inquisitive are welcome to ask for the 'real' name. The namorado da caboca with shrimp sauce and Brazil nut rice (R$45.50) is satisfyingly meaty, while the namorado da cunhã comes with an Amazonian ginger and tomato sauce and a creamy plantain and coconut rice (R$42.50) so tasty and textured that it's almost worth ordering on its own.
Vegetarian options are also carefully thought out, from a banana version of the coconut-y moqueca stew to queijo coalho cheese served in manioc-encrusted balls with a tangy açaí chutney. Aside from the thick piranha (R$18.50) and shrimp (R$24.50) options, the latter given a bold fresh-mint boost, all the soups on offer are also meat-free, making up for the almost entirely seafood, red meat and chicken mains.
Rounding off with options like a warm chocolate and ginger cake (R$15.50), tropical fruit mousse (R$12.50) and the Surpresa de chocolate (R$13.50) – encrusted and lethally chocolate-y fudge balls – it is all too easy to drift off into well-fed daydreams of hammocks and paddle steamers rolling through up the Amazon to Belém.