By Bryan Gregory Sanders, Contributing Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – Though not known as a center for Japanese cuisine, and definitely not known for having a large Japanese population like São Paulo, Rio has a lot to choose from in terms of sushi restaurants. As an international city it is almost hard to find bad sushi in Rio, but one never wants to take that chance.
On the higher-end of the spectrum is the much acclaimed Sushi Leblon. This ‘to-see-and-be-seen’ restaurant, on Rua Dias Ferreira serves beautifully thought out plates of “only the freshest fish.”
Creative twists on staple sushi plates like their seared tuna, foie gras, green apple, with citric sauce perfectly exemplifies the benefits of straying from tradition. To stay ahead of the sushi game in Rio their creative chefs are constantly learning and inviting global guest chefs like Brazil’s Jun Sakamoto, to introduce new techniques and flavors.
A significant part of the Rio sushi scene are rodizios (all you can eat), which have become a mainstay of the culinary culture in Brazil. For a set price of R$45-60 usually, the hungry can sit and eat all day off the special menu.
Nina Lacerda, manager at Nik Sushi, is proud of her menu at one of the most popular sushi destinations in Ipanema. However she remembers when the type of food was first catching on in Rio. “Until recently, it was difficult to introduce Japanese cuisine here in Rio, but once people learned how to eat it they saw its value: it’s really very healthy.” A perfect match for the fitness-minded Carioca diner says Lacerda.
Christina Yuri Inada, a consultant and interior designer for Nik Sushi (and many local shops), remembers 35 years ago when some of the first sushi restaurants opened up in Rio.
She jokes how the restaurants “started with [traditional fancy] lacquer plates and the plates had to be replaced because of the Brazilians’ dependency on fork and knife [scratching them up]. A lot sure has changed.”
Nina Lacerda is quite aware of the sushi novice’s comfort zone, and the differences between the traditional Japanese and Brazilian palettes. Japanese palates are more sensitive – where texture and natural flavor is preferred to more savory and contemporary dishes.
It is still common to see many patrons ordering almost exclusively Maguro (Atum or Tuna) or Shake (Salmon) which is the “safest” for the newly initiated – but always, even in Japan, the most popular.
Yet the fish market does not only open its doors to the heavy hitters or the traditional – allowing other new restaurants to find their way like the surprisingly affordable and popular chain Koni did in 2006. After this success a number of “fast-food-sushi” operators have opened in small chic stalls around Zona Sul (South Zone), where for around R$10 you can get a tasty temaki cone on the go.