Thursday, August 5, 2010

Cupim Goes Upmarket - Alex Atala's Cupim with Pequi-flavored Potato Puree

The last couple of posts here at Flavors of Brazil have dealt with a cut of beef known as cupim in Portuguese - the cut which, in fact, comes from the hump of the humped Brazilian cattle known as zebu. Long considered one of the least desirable cuts of beef, due primarily to its high concentration of fat, cupim has been rediscovered by some of the most talented, and more adventurous, chefs of the Brazilian culinary world and is now sometimes to be found listed not only on the blackboard of neighborhood lunch spots, but in the multi-page menus of some of the most chic restaurants in the country.

Probably the brightest star today in contemporary Brazilian cuisine is Alex Atala, chef-owner of D.O.M.  Restaurant in São Paulo. The restaurant itself was named the 18th best restaurant in the world in this year's World Restaurant Awards. One of his signature dishes is an unusual and controversial treatment of cupim, which he serves with a potato puree flavored with oil of pequi, a Brazilian fruit with a strong love-it-or-hate-it flavor. (Click here to read more about the pequi.) He transforms cupim by his unusual cooking technique in this dish. The meat is cut into small perfect cubes, then cooked in a pressure cooker over very low heat for a long period of time. The end result are caramelized cubes of meat that are lean and so tender that the dish is served without a knife. All that is needed to cut the meat is a spoon. The cubes are served in just a bit of the broth which results from the cooking process with the pequi-enhanced potato puree alongside.

Recently the food section of the Estado de S. Paulo newspaper asked a number of food critics and other assorted foodies to taste and rate this unusual dish. This is what some of them had to say (my translation from the original Portuguese):

Anna Angotti and Damien Takahashi (journalists): We were apprehensive. This would be the third time we had eaten the cupim dish that was already a classic of Alex Atala's. We feared apathy, the palate already accustomed to to the dish, unable to be surprised. After all, we were veterans, we knew all the details, all the tricks of the dish. First would come the aroma of pequi, invading our olfactory senses without asking permission. Only later would it be tamed by the cupim broth, poured onto the plate at the last minute. We could repeat, along with the maitre d', the reason for the absence of a knife (the meat is so tender it can be eaten with a spoon). We were already expecting the contrast between the fresh, lightly acidic puree and the unctuous and intense cupim. The clear, light broth. We knew all that. What we didn't know is that we'd again be enraptured, just like the first time.

Braulio Pasmanik (businessman and gourmet): I hate pequi! I put that phrase in the Google search window and found that along with me, 3200 other people share that opinion.Taking into consideration that pequi isn't fundamental to gastronomy, that's an impressive number! The closest taste that pequi, brings to mind, for me, is bubble gum. And if cupim is already a greasy and tasteless meat, imagine it served with bubble gum!

You can see that this dish is one people tend not to be neutral about. But I guess that's what makes it such an exciting dish - it evokes all kinds of strong reactions, positive and negative. I've not tried it, but if and when I do, Flavors of Brazil will get the first review, I promise.

(after the jump there is a sampling of more critiques of Atala's dish that appeared in the Estado de S.Paulo article)

Luiz Horta (Assistant Editor, Paladar): A contemporary classic. A re-invention of foie gras without the foie. A magnificent texture, delicate intervention of pequi (a very dangerous flavor, one I normally detest). To reach a balance in all this is complicated. To succeed, and - on top of all - enchant, is something notable.

Neide Rigo (Nutritionist and author of the blog Come-Se): D.O.M. Restaurant's cupim cooked at low temperature resulted in an incredible texture for such a fibrous cut of meat. The fibers were tender, to the point that they could be cut with a spoon. The reduction that caramelized the exterior of the cubes has a strong meaty flavor, overly toasted, that fights with the pequi puree, also very strong-flavored. I adore pequi but both it and the cupim have a lot of fat and a strong presence. It was an ugly fight, and it wasn't my fault.

Luiz Americo Camargo, Supplements Editor, Estado de S. Paulo): Cupim is, for me, the Kobe beef of Brazil, the best cut from zebu cattle, even though doctors and nutritionists demonize it. Here is has a modern presentation, cutable with a spoon and with a exceptional reduction - potent without being indelicate. The accompaniment was not so felicitous. The pequi overpowered to such a degree that the equilibrium with the potato puree was lost. Could it be that the chef wasn't in the house?

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