By Doug Gray, Senior Contributing Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO – A new addition to Leblon’s rua Dias Ferreira gastronomic delights was unveiled last month by a Carioca-London couple looking to make their mark on the neighborhood’s famous dining. Having determinedly broken through the city’s notorious red tape, Mekong is the product of three years of careful consideration and deliberation for the couple.
Not that it took them that long to open, far from it. Owners Ana Cecilia Vance (Rio) and Mary Byker (London) played around with several business ideas to pursue in the city they both love. “We arrived here three years ago” begins Mary, “and had lots of different ideas about what we wanted to do; organic clothing, property development, many things. Then when the opportunity arose to rent a place on Leblon’s Dias Ferreira (the city’s wealthiest neighborhood and gastronomic hub) we decided to give it a go.”
A leap of faith, but one with sound credentials. Ana had worked in the restaurant business when the couple met in Camden Town, North London, and the perennial Thai, Indian, Vietnamese and Chinese restaurants that are so taken for granted in that part of the world had simply not made a dent in the consciousness of Rio’s foodies.
With that in mind, Mekong pitches itself as pan-Asian, a bold move in an area known for some of the best Japanese and Thai restaurants in the city, but with an imaginative menu, some intriguing drinks choices and very much its own personality, there is no doubt it can hold its own.
“Vietnamese and Indian food is almost non-existent here, and Thai food is a luxury. We want to make it a bit more accessible.”
The menu touches on several classics from the continent, including the Indian specialty Rogan Josh, the Thai staples Green Curry and Pad Thai, and some excellent starters in the form of summer rolls, fish cakes and excellent squid. The uniting factor is the river to which the restaurant’s name pays homage, linking or running close by those countries that harbor the unique spices and flavors that Mekong seeks to recreate.
Prices are all around the R$25 mark for mains, but lunchtime specials get you three courses for R$29.90, whilst evening happy hour runs from 6PM to 8PM Tuesday to Friday, with Bohemia beer reduced to R$3.90 and up to R$3.50 off selected cocktails. Good value in an area not noted for being easy on the wallet.
It is a first foray into the restaurant business for Owners Ana Cecilia Vance and husband Mary Byker, but they are no strangers to the broader aspects of the industry. A successful singer and now DJ in some of the more exclusive bars in Rio, Mary has been energized by the new project, though he admits it hasn’t been easy getting to this stage;
“It took a little longer than we hoped and sometimes it was a bit of a struggle. The nature of doing business here is very different to the UK. You have to be patient and keep faith in what you want to achieve, but we got there in the end.”
One specific the owners had in mind from the beginning was the celebrated Mekhong whiskey famous in that part of the world, after Mary discovered it in London. Unable to source the drink among importers here, the duo have instead created their own, blending 85 percent dark rum and 15 percent sake and infused with spices like vanilla and cinnamon. This ‘Mekong Infusion’ forms the basis for their range of classic cocktails with a twist; The Muay Thai, Meh Jito, Thai Foon and perhaps the best, the Caipikong.
“The first month has been great” concludes Mary. “Its early days and we’ve had to make a few tweaks to get things right, but that’s the process. Next I’m thinking of turning my attention to sausages! There’s a distinct lack of gourmet sausage – pork and apple, Guinness and beef, that kind of thing… any takers?”