Tuesday, May 11, 2010

RESTAURANT REVIEW - Faustino (Fortaleza, Brazil)

Situated beautifully on Fortaleza's seaside promenade with views of waves lapping the coral reefs at the base of the restaurant's windows, Faustino is Fortaleza's most prestigious, and most prizewinning, restaurant. Until last year, Faustino was tucked away in a nearby residential neighborhoor, but when a chain restaurant decided to close its seafront location Faustino made his move to a larger and more prominent location.

In its most recent edition, the Guia Quatro Rodas, Brazil's Michelin Guide, named Faustino the best regional restaurant in Brazil's northeast. The Veja guides, another highly respected guide to Brazilian restaurants and gastronomy, similarly praises Faustino.

Faustino is not only the name of the restaurant, it is the name of the proprietor and chef, José Faustino Paiva. When Faustino was only 18 he went south to Rio de Janeiro to find work - a route well-travelled in those days by ambitious young men and women from Ceará. He found work as a dish-washer in a well-known hotel in Rio, the Hotel Gloria. His talents in the kitchen enabled him to move from the dish-washing machine to the food prep area and on to a sous-chef position. He moved on to other hotels, each time moving up the career ladder, until he became one of the most famous chefs in Rio. Having made his name and fortune, he decided to move "back home" and bought a small restaurant in Fortaleza, and a small farm in the countryside about 20 miles away. His restaurant was an immediate success, and his farm still provides much of the fresh produce and herbs for his restaurant.

I visited Faustino for the first time last weekend, and was predictably impressed by the quality of the food and of the service, and by the use of local ingredients and themes without being locked into either one. Local inspiration was combined with international flavors, techniques and presentations to give the best of both worlds - local and international.

We started with crab claws (patinhos de caranguejo) simply and quickly cooked in a broth flavored with onion, and served with home-made tartar sauce. Each tiny claw - local crabs are not big - had a nugget of sweet, tender meat attached. I sampled the tartar sauce, which was worlds away from bottled sauces, but preferred to eat the crabs unadorned, the better to get the flavor of the crab meat.

I followed the crab with snook (robalo) garnished with fried plantains and sauced with a light curry bechamel. This firm-fleshed fish stood up to the flavors of the curry sauce - the fish isn't wimpy, but it's not "fishy" either - and the banana added a sweetness which is typical of dishes from Ceará. The fish was served with a timbale of brown rice.

My dining partner chose Cleopatra shrimp, which consisted of large local shrimps, grilled, then sauced with a light cream sauce containing fresh seedless grapes, mushrooms and capers. This dish was served with scalloped potatoes and creamed white rice. The shrimp were sweet and tender, the sauce was subtle with sweet and sour accents provided by the grapes and capers, and the side dishes were excellent, although serving both potatoes and rice seemed a bit excessive to me. However, serving two starches is common in restaurants in Fortaleza, so I'm sure I'm in the minority locally in preferring one starch.

We chose a Chilean sauvignon blanc from Terranoble which complemented the meal very well, and which exhibited the crispness and grassiness of a good sauvignon blanc. The substantial main courses meant that we had to leave the dessert menu unsampled.

For food of this quality and complexity, I thought the prices were quite reasonable. Faustino is among the more expensive restaurants in Fortaleza, but for anyone used to restaurant prices in most of the world's metropolitan areas, all restaurants in Fortaleza are a bargain. Only the wine, as always in Brazil, was priced to world standards.

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