Monday, January 10, 2011

On the Road - Rio de Janeiro (Pt.5) - Lunching at the São Pedro Fish Market

In an eminently practical and gastronomically inventive move, the São Pedro Fish Market in Niterói, Brazil, just across the bay from Rio de Janeiro, built a mezzanine above the double row of stalls that house the fish market itself. This mezzanine, which looks down onto the hustle and bustle of the market is home to about 10 or 12 independent restaurant operations. Each has a space along one of the walls for a kitchen, and a few have separate air-conditioned dining rooms. Most, however, place their wooden tables and foldaway chairs out in the central space of the mezanine to make one great common dining room.

These restaurants specialize, of course, in seafood, and they do have menus from which one can order. The overwhelming majority of their customers, however, shop at the fish market before climbing the stairs to the mezzanine. At the market they choose the seafood they want to have for lunch (the market closes long before dinnertime) then carry it with them upstairs. It might be a pound of shrimp, or perhaps a cavaquinha. Then again, it might be a fillet or steak from a large fish like salmon or dourado, or a mess of whole sardines. Or even a whole fish, like snapper or mackerel, for grilling. Or if you're with a group, some of all of the above to share, family-style.

With their main course in hand, diners ascend the flight of stairs at either end of the market to the mezzanine. Any of the restaurants will cook one's purchase to order, and for the price of about R$10 (USD $6) will cook, garnish and plate whatever you bring them from downstairs. In addition, they can provide side dishes - fries, salads, beans, etc. - and lots of ice-cold beer, the drink of choice at São Pedro.

When we were at the market during Flavors of Brazil's recent visit to Rio de Janeiro, we purchased 1 lb (500 gr) of ocean-caught grew shrimps, whole and unpeeled, for R$17 (USD $10) and the same amount of dourado (dolphin-fish, mahi-mahi) for R$10 (USD $6). After checking out several of the restaurants on the mezzanine, we chose to hand our purchases over to one of the smaller restaurants called Parada Bonde ("The Tram Stop" in English). Our hard-working waitress, Graça, handled a huge number of tables and larger number of diners with efficiency and charm - she treated all of her customers with a Brazilian version of the truck-stop-waitress "tough love" that kept all of them in line and in love with her.

Our shrimps arrived first, fried just until crisp yet still juicy. We pulled off the heads, though many diners at adjacent tables ate the entire animal from head to tail. Tails were discarded too, but in the Brazilian fashion, we ate the body of the shrimp unpeeled and with legs attached, with a squeeze of lime. Accompanied by a 600 ml (20 oz) bottle of Antartica Original beer, the shrimp were salty from the sea, crunchy on the outside, and tender and flavorful on the inside. Absolutely delicious.

Just as we were finishing the shrimp, the dourado arrived, breaded and fried. It was served with more wedges of lime, plus raw onion rings. The firm, white flesh of the fish was cooked just right, and was very juicy. To my taste, the breading was too thick, but it was easily flaked away, and its thickness had prevented any oiliness from reaching the boneless fillet of fish. The fish, of course, required another bottle of Original to wash it down.

It all made a filling, protein- and iodine-rich seafood lunch. Nothing fancy, nothing expensive, just the freshest possible seafood purchased right off the crushed ice in the fish market, simply fried and served piping hot, with a super-cooled beer or two. And to top it off, the warmth and charm of Graça. Couldn't be better than that.

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