Whilst visiting Rio de Janeiro at the end of August, I booked a table to eat at Lasai, the 74th Best Restaurant in the World, and one Michelin star rated. The name of the restaurant is Basque-Spanish, meaning relaxed or informal. It was too relaxed to my liking, preferring the 100th ranked Oteque in the same city.
I had a problem with Uber for the first time on my extensive trip, related to payment, it refusing to accept both my credit cards, each with ample funds. Only Brazilian bank credit cards work for Uber. This overshadowed my restaurant experience, being worried about how I would get back to my hotel.
Lasai offers two menu options, both Basque-inspired, ‘Festival’ consists of 15 courses (345 Brazilian Real, R1300), and ‘Don’t Mess with Me’ of 7 courses (295 Real, R1200). I chose the Full Menu. Manager and my waiter Zigor could not explain the reason for the two names, saying that the chef/owner Rafael Costa e Silva had come up with them! Chef Rafael worked at the World’s 50 Best Top 10 Restaurant Mugaritz near San Sebastián in Spain for five years, before opening his own restaurant in Rio five years ago. The restaurant garnered a Michelin star within its first year. São Paulo and Rio are the only two South American cities in which Michelin rates the top Restaurants.
I was seated at a corner table in the first section of the restaurant, next to a lovely couple Rodrigo and Diego, who did not hide how much they enjoyed their meal, through the ohhhs and ahhhhs of their enjoyment. By coincidence we met two evenings later at Oteque restaurant, and have become friends.
The decor in the restaurant is beyond minimalist, there being no decor on the walls, the walls being raw brick in some areas of the two-room restaurant. The decor was on the table, a very clever presentation of what this restaurant stands for in a vegetable (carrot cauliflower, peas) suspended inside a bell jar. Green plants were visible from my table, hanging above the seating in the second restaurant section. The roof trusses are visible, the building having no ceiling. Other than the vegetable decor, the table only had a linen napkin. Cutlery is by Arthur Krupp.
Zigor brought a wine list and a cocktail list to the table, the latter not interesting me. I told Zigor that I could not order a wine without seeing the Menu. This was my third experience on my trip of a blind menu, irritating in one making a menu choice, followed by a wine(s) choice without knowing what one is eating! Zigor then explained the Festival Menu to me, consisting of two starters, two mains, and two desserts, preceded by eight starters, served in two batches of four snacks, creating a menu of 14 courses in total, a surprise extra course bringing this to 15 courses. I was told that I would be served Brazilian cuisine. Zigor added that the meat and fish dishes change regularly, depending on what is available to the kitchen. Vegetables are sourced from the chef’s two vegetable gardens as well as foraged from the mountains of Rio de Janeiro. The ‘Don’t Mess with me’ Menu was later described by Zigor when I pushed him to explain it, to be for regulars who come to eat at the restaurant almost weekly, who don’t need the frills, and dive in to the essence of the meal. One table was so regular that a baby was breastfed at the table in full view of all diners. To its credit, it was the best behaved baby, which did not make a squeak all night.
I received the wine list, with a craft paper cover and recycled pages inside. I did not want a wine pairing meal, so wanted to select a glass of wine to accompan my mainly fish and vegetable meal. Sommelier Maura was a delight, friendly, informative, and helpful, especially when I asked if I could photograph the only South African wine (by the bottle only unfortunately) on her winelist. The winelist is dominated by wines from Chile France, Portugal, and Brazil, the home country being a surprise to me, not having heard of wines from Brazil. I was fascinated about the Testalonga Baby Bandito Keep on Punching Chenin Blanc 2018 from the Swartland, made by winemaker Craig Hawkins, on her wine list. Two evenings later I was to see the same wine at Oteque too. Sommelier Maira described this wine as ‘electric’. I asked her how she had heard about it to stock it, and she replied that she had seen it in a Deli in France three years prior, tried it, and loved it, it being a modern wine, unknown then in Brazil. Now there is an importer bringing it to Brazil. I was astounded to ‘meet’ this wine, the highlight of my dinner here, even though I did not drink it.
Simmelier Maira told me that Brazil mainly grows Italian grape varieties, being Peverela and Trebbiano. She allowed me to taste three of her white wines by the glass, a German Riesling from Mosel with a slight fizz and tasting of grape juice, their white wine of the day from Australia (Chardonnay, organic, very oaked), and their Brazilian orange wine from Rio Grande do Sul, called Era dos Ventos 2018, basalt-fermented, a Trebbiano on the Rock, She described it as deep, dry, and versatile. It paired well with all the courses except the dessert.
Zigor shared that he is Basque-Spanish, and had met Chef Rafael at Mugaritz, having worked at that esteemed restaurant for six years. Chef Rafael trained at the American Culinary institute in New York prior to working in Spain. He is 40 years old.
Snacks 1 – 8
# Yellow and purple Sweet potato with a cashew nut cream sprinkled with cashew nut. It was crispy and crunchy in texture, and creamy, created from the cashew nuts dominating.
# Dehydrated kale leaf, chopped pieces of hearts of palm and a cream, the kale leaf being crumbly when bitten into, and too large to eat in one go. Kale is not my favorite.
# An attractive dish of a green chip made from radish leaves which had been puréed and deep fried, topped with watermelon radish slices, and Serra Estela cheese inside. It was at this point that I was astounded that Zigor, in his capacity as waiter and as manager, did not have any information about the cheese filling. He went to ask, and returned with the name.
# A turnip and lemongrass cream was served on a rice cracker, but it did not have a distinctive taste, I detecting some saltiness. Its white colour on a grey background did nothing for the desirability of trying this particular snack. I felt the salt hand being a little too heavy on all the snacks, but nothing as bad as it was at Tegui in Buenos Aires.
# Bolinho, a corn croquette with orange in the dough, served with corn cream and sprinkled with an orange and corn powder.
# Sourdough toast with ricotta, strawberry, pickled fennel, and chopped up beetroot pieces, topped with micro herbs. This was a good tasting snack too.
9, Roast pumpkin
I liked the C-shaped vegetable dish in its presentation, the roasted pumpkin drizzled with honey and vinegar, and topped with a cream of Brazilian pine nuts, barbecued broccoli, pumpkin powder, and finished off with broccoli flowers. The pine nuts gave crunch to the texture, but the taste was dominated by the charred broccoli, almost black in colour.
At this point it was starting to get hot inside the restaurant, and I addressed this with Zigor. There is no natural ventilation in the space, but he did switch on an air conditioner, which cooled things down.
This dish consisted of boiled and then barbecued prawns, and was combined with blanched peas, avocado, served with a foam of coconut milk, and topped with the oxalis herb. The prawns and peas gave the dish a crunchy texture, and the avocado was lost in the dish.
At this stage a very hard crust bread was brought to the table, with no accompaniment, more than midway through the meal. It had been cut in half. It was very hot, I was warned, being kept warm with coals underneath the cloth. I tried a bit of it, intended to be eaten alongside this and the other dishes to follow. It was such a hard crust that I requested butter, but was refused it, saying that they had none in the kitchen, and that I could only be offered olive oil! I wanted to leave, but was committed to the meal. It was a turn for the worst for me in this meal. I sent the rest of the bread back to the kitchen.
The steamed sole was served with mangarito, belonging to the yum family, and the sauce of manioc, belonging to the tuber family, with nasturtium oil. It was not an ideal plate for photography, reflecting the light. It was a very salty dish, and unimpressive, there being no distinctive taste nor texture.
12. Pork ribs
I received a steak knife branded with the restaurant name, and made by Zakharov, made in Brazil.
Twelve hour cooked pork ribs were served with white, purple, and orange carrots, pistachio, Brussels sprouts, and watercress. It was presented on a beautiful plate. The watercress was crunchy, and the dish was tasty, despite a saltiness coming through. The meat was soft, and this was a well presented dish.
13. Honey and cheese palate cleanser
The most unusual dish of the evening, but also a complete fail, was the dish with four honeys and four cheeses, intended as a palate cleanser. What was bizarrecwas that I was to taste the four cheeses and honeys, without any guideline. A shock was that Zigor did not know the ages or details of the cheeses at all, and had to go to the kitchen to request this information!
# mandasai bee from Bahia Sol
# manduri bee from Espírito Santo
# Jatai bee from São Paulo
# Traditional European origin bees, from Rio de Janeiro.
The cheeses offered with this pairing were the following:
# Cow’s milk cheese Minas Gerais, 6 months aged, from Serjao
#. Cow’s milk cheese from the Rio mountains, 14 days aged
# Cow’s milk cheese from Tocantins in the Northern State, one year aged, their Parmesan. It was very strong in taste
14. Graviola dessert
I saw graviola (custard apple) in Lima for the first time. This fruit was served with ice cream, a foam of yogurt, and lemon grass powder, oats, and sweet Brazilian lemons. The Lemons were tasty, and the oats gave the dish texture.
At this stage I was getting bored with the dinner, almost wishing it to be over and done with, something that I have rarely experienced in a restaurant before.
A second dessert was generous, made with the local acai berry, ice cream, chards of white chocolate dusted with the berry powder, macadamia nuts, and cream of white chocolate. The chards were paper thin.
Initially I was impressed. All the staff I dealt with spoke perfect English, my waiter also being the Manager. The staff are friendly and informally dressed, with three-quarter black slacks, a white knitted top, and grey apron. I loved the Buena Vista Social Club music played at one stage, reminding me of my time in Havana, but thought that Gospel music was less appropriate for a restaurant.
The downside was that I missed a story in the Menu; I did not feel the excitement of eating at a restaurant of this caliber, it being casual; the salt hand was evident throughout the savory dishes, not as heavy as at Tegui, but still noticeable; My waiter forgot to mention some ingredients which I picked up via taste; He did not seem to know basic aspects of the dishes, for example, the age of the cheeses in the palate cleanser; I was refused butter for the very hard bread, causing me to flip just a little; my replaced napkin was intended to be a fresh one, but had spots on it; and the waiter did not request any feedback about any of the dishes!
A highlight was being able to meet Chef Rafael in the kitchen, he having been there all evening, such a rare experience. We did a speed trip around South America, asking me where I’d eaten, and I gave him my feedback. He was surprised with what I told him about our eating experience at Borago in Santiago. He showed me their private Dining Room upstairs, and one can see the lit up Christ the Redeemer statue from there.
POSTSCRIPT: 12/9/2019. I sent a link to this Review to the restaurant via Instagram Direct. The Chef replied directly, saying that I did not understand their farm to fork concept. I told him that it was not explained to me. He sent me the following detailed explanation and apology by email, on behalf of his restaurant, a commendable restaurant response:
Lasai, Rua Condé de Iraja 191, Botafogo, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Tel +55 21 3449-1854. www.lasai.com.br Instagram: @ restaurantelasai Tuesday – Saturday.