By Kate Rintoul, Contributing Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – A place of great natural beauty, the Cidade Maravilhosa is not internationally known for its vibrant restaurant scene, however a group of Leblon-based restauranteurs look set to change this. In the years since the well-regarded Sushi Leblon opened on Rua Dias Ferreira, the street has attracted a flurry of new and exciting restaurants.
The rising profile of Leblon has been driven largely by three women. Ana Carolina Gayoso, Bia Stewart and Marina Hirsch are the team behind Sushi Leblon, Zuka and Brigite’s and they have made Rua Dias Ferreira Rio’s modern food epicenter.
Originally from Italy, film producer, Giulia Sartori has lived in Rio for just over a year and regularly visits Rua Dias Ferreira. “The restaurants on this street provide the most enjoyable dining experience in the city thanks to their contemporary design and interesting food and drinks menus.”
“My first visit to Zuka marked a turning point in my Rio life. Up until then I had been struggling to find modern and well prepared food. I would rather have lunch or dinner in Leblon a few times a month and really enjoy it rather than eating out more often at other restaurants that do not have the same standards and which I don’t think represent good value for money.”
Zuka was the trio’s second restaurant and having opened in 2002, it is now widely considered as one of the city’s best restaurants. With a focus on international contemporary cuisine, the menu draws upon a variety of influences to include dishes like ceviche, foie gras and bacalhau. A focus on fresh ingredients, unusual pairings and excellent execution of dishes in the open kitchen underpin the menu and have won it both critical and popular success.
Brigite’s is a recent addition to the street. Focusing on Mediterranean cooking, the restaurant offers lighter but varied dishes with a stronger emphasis on organic produce and a number of vegetarian options.
Opened in 2009, Venga! is an authentic and popular tapas bar which is a great place to meet friends for a drink and some delicious morsels of Galician cooking. The quality of the food on offer means that this tiny piece of Spain attracts a big crowd, especially at weekends and it is not unusual to see queues of people waiting to enjoy the wine list, cocktails and delicious morsels.
If you are looking for a social evening over food but don’t fancy waiting in line, new kid on the block Stuzzi is a good alternative. Taking its name from the Italian “stuzzichini”, meaning little dishes, it offers some genuine Italian flavors. While this is more of a lounge than a restaurant, it certainly doesn’t lack in the culinary credentials as chef Paula Prandini trained in France and Italy and her last post was at the Michelin-starred restaurant Il Griso in Lombardy.
Togu is one of the more established restaurants on Rua Dias Ferreira and is highly rated for its Asian fusion cuisine. Seen by some as a less price alternative to Sushi Leblon (Togu has a popular all you can eat option at lunchtime), the restaurant offers much more than this, with a diverse menu including exclusive dishes created by Ana Zembelli, who worked with Ferran Adrià at the eponymous El Bulli.
Another noteworthy eatery on Leblon’s culinary strip is Mekong, which opened in August 2010. The pan-Asian oasis is co-owned by husband and wife team Englishman Mary Byker and Carioca Ana Vance. The menu touches on several classics from Asia, including the Indian specialty Rogan Josh, and the Thai staples Green Curry and Pad Thai.
With high profile chefs, visionary restaurateurs and an adventurous clientele, it is exciting to see what will happen next and how what happens on Rua Dias Ferreira will affect the rest of the Rio restaurant scene.