Summer in the city might conjure up thoughts of an escape from the alternately baking and sodden streets with a day at the beach. But if your spirit fails at the thought of 20-mile tailbacks there and 20-mile tailbacks back again, then a semi-rustic gastronomic day out close to São Paulo might be just the ticket.
The pick of the bunch for foodies is, hands down, Mocotó. Located in the anonymous mass of higgledy-piggledy houses in the far northeastern suburbs of the city, it hardly qualifies as a country retreat – far from it. But what it does have is some of the best Brazilian food in the city, and at a very reasonable cost. What it takes to eat at Mocotó is time, both in getting there and in waiting for a table; so come with patience and a hearty appetite, and as you wait for your spot inside this charmingly hectic boteco-restaurant, you can practice your Portuguese with the casually-dressed, chatty locals.
The bar knocks up excellent caipirinhas to loosen the tongue: try the red fruits version, and some cassava chips to munch on as you wait. Mocotó has one foot firmly planted in the past, and one in the present. The restaurant’s young chef, Rodrigo Oliveira, draws on the traditions of the arid North East, with its ascetic emphasis on beans, rice and meat, and creatively updates evocative, old- fashioned dishes like baião de dois, which combines black eyed peas, rice and a rennet cheese (similar to paneer) – one of those homey dishes that make Brazilians go all misty- eyed.
In search of perfection
Oliveira lights up when talking about his mission to perfect his pork scratchings – torresmo. He updates crackling by smoking the bacon in a special oven and then frying it twice, at different temperatures, for maximum crunch. A staple of the menu, and the classic test of a Brazilian chefs’ mettle, is sun-cured beef – carne de sol. Here, Oliveira has been honing his skills for years. He uses silverside, a relatively cheap cut, but sources it from the most expensive herds in Brazil. The result is tender, melt-in-your-mouth meat that comes served with a whole head of garlic and baby chillies on the side. Crunchy farofa and string beans make good accompaniments.
To follow, go for the homemade ice cream studded with pieces of rapadura – a fudge of unrefined sugarcane juice – with sauce made from catuaba bark. It's purportedly aphrodisiac and is delicious, even if after all that food it’s hard to imagine anything more stimulating than a siesta. Still on desserts, the layered mousse is made with deep-textured chocolate and comes with two different cachaças, although I wondered if the second shot might not be overkill.
Serious-minded, intelligent Oliveira is a perfectionist, who enjoys showing off his kitchen. The showstopper is the mature sub-tropical garden, where fat plants crowd together and techniques and is completely dedicated to his profession. Back in the restaurant, he makes the rounds of tables chatting with the customers. A second generation of punters makes up the clientele these days, since his father, José Oliveira, first opened the bar, whose speciality was mocotó – a soup made of bone marrow – back in the 1970s.
Head for the hills
If the boisterousness of Mocotó sounds a bit too much like hard work, then a lazy day by the pool at Felix Bistrot in Granja Viana, a swish area on the south-western outskirts of the city, might be more your kind of thing. The exposed brickwork restaurant, which caters to a crowd of well-heeled locals, is pretty, with high ceilings and a nice permeability between the inside space and the terrace. The showstopper is the mature sub-tropical garden, where fat plants crowd together, drooping down in the rain and channelling water along their veins into the green pool, since while the food is good in parts, it's not worth a journey in itself.
The menu blends French and Brazilian ingredients and techniques: the oysters in a gratin were a success – juicy, creamy and garlicky, retaining a hint of the oystery texture. The confit, a leg of duck in an açaí sauce also worked well, with the fruit offsetting the fattiness of the well-cooked duck. The entrecôte was less exciting – chewy, and with a dense brown sauce more like your least favourite grandma’s gravy than a light French jus. To follow, a set of three micro desserts was a nice idea, in which the light, creamy crème brulee, with a flowery hint of lavender, stood out as a success.
Day trippers' pit-stop
Finally, up to the north of the city in the green hills of the Serra da Cantareira, hikers and shoppers alike gravitate to the shopping-cum-restaurant complex O Velhão. The charming, ramshackle buildings make up a complex that also includes clothes, gifts and furniture shops.
Close to the Serra da Cantareira, a nature reserve in which brown howler monkeys form part of the scenery – you’ll definitely hear them, even if you’re not lucky enough to spot one – O Velhão’s restaurant, As Véia, attracts fitness fans as well as shoppers, clogging up roads and overloading the car parks at the weekend. Weekdays are a better option.
Once there, a quick shuffle around the shops is in order and then do as the paulistanos do: browse the groaning buffet tables. There’s a passing nod at healthy options, but it’s the acres of naughty Brazilian classics – the crackling, pork scratchings, the ribs, and the slabs of beef and stews – that draw the punters, plus more variations in the rice and farofa department than on a theme from Haydn.
Load your plate high and, if the weather holds, take it out to the terrace with a caipirinha or beer and admire your newly-acquired collection of scented candles, swimwear and novelty flip-flops. It might not be the beach; but at least you didn’t spend four hours getting here.
Mocotó is at Avenida Nossa Senhora do Loreto 1100, Vila Medeiros (2951 3056, mocoto.com.br).
As Véia is at O Velhão, Estrada de Santa Inês 3000, Mairiporã (4485 2084, velhao.com.br). Read more on As Véia
Felix Bistrot is at Avenida José Felix de Oliveira 555, Granja Viana – Cotia (4702 3555, felixbistrot.com.br). Read more on Felix Bistrot