At Rio 40°, newbies are converted after just one cocktail.
Hot, stanky days call for cool, sharp, sweet drinks, and the Brazilian national cocktail of crushed lime, sugar, ice, and cachaça (a sugarcane liquor) fits the bill perfectly. For the past decade, the drink, called caipirinha, has been on a good run, migrating from its native home along the beaches of Brazil into clubs, bars, and restaurants worldwide. If you’ve never had a truly great version of this cocktail, drop what you’re doing and head to Rio 40°, a Brazilian restaurant on St. Clair, west of Dufferin. Find a seat on the patio, flag down one of the friendly waitresses, who all speak with bouncy, samba-inflected accents, and ask for a caipirinha. Bring the small tumbler to your lips, feel the tingle of the alcohol and the freshly squeezed lime juice, mellowed by dissolved sugar, and you’ll see why this cocktail is Brazil’s signature culinary contribution to global culture.
As much as the soccer fans among us might know about Pelé and Petrobras, most of us have a scant knowledge of Brazil when it comes to food. When I lived in Rio de Janeiro several years ago, my friends back home would regularly ask how often I ate meats carved off a stick. Sure, rodizio restaurants—barbecue houses common in the country’s south—are popular, but there’s a lot more to the national cuisine than the types of Brazilian meals a person might find in Niagara Falls or Orlando.
Janaina Duarte isn’t surprised at the lack of knowledge here. In 2001, when she arrived in Toronto from Itaguaí, a small city in Rio de Janeiro state, to study English, there was hardly more than a handful of Brazilian restaurants here. “The authentic food was missing,” she says, remembering excursions with fellow Brazilian classmates to Portuguese restaurants, inquiring whether they served the right kind of rice, beans, and farofa—a toasted manioc flour that Brazilians sprinkle on their dishes.
After working at various restaurants, including an Italian lounge that used to occupy the space Rio 40° now does, Duarte felt Brazil’s turn on the table was overdue. In 2004, she opened Rio 40°, named after a pop song, offering up national staples like bolhinos de bacalhau (puffy golden codfish fritters) and kibe (golf ball–sized beef and buckwheat pastries, which are a riff on the traditional Lebanese food made with lamb). Those snacks, consumed with beer served in frosted glasses (Brazilians do not tolerate warm beer), keep many of Rio 40°’s customers anchored to the patio for hours on end. “Brazilians will just keep drinking until you tell them to stop,” says Duarte, with a laugh.
Sixty per cent of the restaurant’s clients are Brazilian, drawn from a community that numbers more than 11,500 in the GTA, according to 2006 census numbers. Long a small faction within the much larger Portuguese community, the Brazilian population in Toronto has been growing in recent years, both economically and culturally, mirroring the ascendency of the nation itself as an emerging power.
Thankfully, none of this new-found wealth has changed their appetite for hearty dishes like carne seca: chunks of salted brisket, dried for three days and braised so it’s flaky and intensely flavourful, served with puffy fried chunks of manioc root (starchier and sweeter than potatoes). On weekends, the restaurant features feijoada—a thick stew of beans and pork parts that is the de facto Sunday lunch all across Brazil.
The kicker for me at Rio 40° is their moqueca de camarão, a specialty of the Afro-influenced state of Bahia, the cultural heart of the country and its colonial capital. This tomato-and-coconut-milk-based shrimp-and-fish stew is laced with palm oil and chili, and brought to the table bubbling hot in an iron cauldron. Served with a side of rice and pirão, a tomato-infused porridge, this dish delivers a taste of Brazil as big, complex, and easy to fall in love with as the country itself.
1256 St. Clair Ave. W., 416-654-6363, rio40restaurant.com.