On my recent trip through a number of South American countries, I booked to eat at each of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants operating in the cities I visited, and at which I was able to make a booking. Oteque in Rio de Janeiro was the final restaurant I ate at a day before my departure back to Cape Town. Oteque is number 100 on this eminent restaurant ranking list, and has a Michelin star, both achievements acquired within 18 months of the restaurant opening in Rio de Janeiro, its owner and Chef Alberto Landgraf having previously owned a restaurant in São Paulo. I found it to be far better than Lasai restaurant, also in Rio de Janeiro, which is ranked 74th Best on the World’s 50 Best Restaurant, at which I had eaten two days prior.
It seems to be a trend to have very low key branding outside top Restaurants, and Oteque follows this trend. My taxi driver struggled to find the street number and name of the restaurant,
having to drive around the block to find it, but it may have had something to do with his eyesight and poor street lighting in the area too. The website introduces the restaurant, but this is not spoken or described on the menu: ‘…focusing on high quality ingredients with an elegant yet casual service, Alberto and his team take inspiration from nature’s purity, aiming to express joy, beauty and comfort throughout their work’.
The Oteque name is derived from Latin, meaning ‘the place of’.
I was greeted by a very warm and friendly Juliana, who had communicated with me about the booking by email, requesting that I arrive at 20h00, and informing me that I would be seated at a Chef’s Table, which sounded fine to me. Juliana went outside with me, to take a photograph at the signage. Her reception area was in a warm yellow, with rough walls. She took me to my seat at the Chef’s Table, being the one closest to the open plan kitchen, really open with no counter to hide anything from the
diners, and seating six persons.
I went to take some photographs, of the bar at the back end of the rectangular shaped space, the table with wines for the evening, and it was here that my eye caught the bottles of Testalonga Baby Bendito wines from the Swartland, made by Craig Hawkins, in his private capacity, from grapes grown at Lammershoek, where he is a winemaker, I discovered via Google. I had never heard of it in South Africa, and had been introduced to the Keep on Punching Chenin Blanc two evenings earlier at Lasai Restaurant, also in Rio de Janeiro.
The label in itself is unusual, as is its name. More about that a little later.
I had just taken in the surprise of seeing the South African wine again in a city very far from my home country, when I recognised Diego and Rodrigo, who were my table neighbours at Lasai Restaurant two nights prior. It was an uncanny coincidence. It was a warm welcome and greeting of each other. Diego and Rodrigo love eating out, and laughed when I told them that I am banned from some restaurants in SA. They said that this would never happen in South America.
At my seat I was welcomed by Leo, the Restaurant Manager and Sommelier. He is very quiet spoken, and I struggled to understand him as the restaurant buzz increased as the other patrons arrived. He handed me the Menu, printed simply on an A5 cream board, listing the eighth courses, reflecting the base ingredients, refreshingly no more than four ingredients per course. The price of 325 Brazilian Real (R1300) was specified, the cost of water and coffee being 15 Real. The wine pairing options were twofold, Light and Premium.
I had not had a chance to digest the Menu, when Leo started explaining that there were three add-ons possible : for the first Amberjack fish dish caviar could be added, at a cost of an additional 135 Real ; for the mussel dish an add-on was Italian truffles, charged at 155 Real; and for the lamb dish the meat could be substituted for Wagyu beef, at 255 Real. I declined all three extras, the prices of the add-ons making the meal very expensive.
Leo then wanted to discuss wines with me, and brought the winelist, listing about 200 wines. The cover of the winelist is the same tan leather as used for the chairs. I focused on the Wines by the Glass page right at the back, and it surprised me that there were mainly French and Italian wines. Leo explained that the French still are the largest wine producers, and hence he selects the best wines available to the restaurant in Brazil, from importers. As quality ingredients are what the restaurant stands for, the same applies to the wine selection.
Only one further South African wine was available, Mount Arbor’s Saffraan, a Cinsault, also from the Swartland. Leo offered to open the Testalonga Baby Bandito for me, for a glass of the 2018 Chenin Blanc, at 80 Real (R300), a price I would never pay at home for a glass of wine. The menu was seafood driven, so I thought that this was a good pairing. My eye caught a Malbec from Cahors, the original home of Malbec in France, before phylloxera destroyed most Malbec vineyards in France a hundred years ago. It was by Chateau Combel La-Serre, a 2016, charged at 69 Real. The cost of the Light wine pairing is 275 Real and that of the Premium one is 475 Real, for Sake and then seven glasses of wine.
I struggled to understand who my waiter was, no one else talking to me about my dietary requirements. I asked Leo, and he said that all the staff serve the guests. I counted about ten chefs active in the kitchen, two staff
interacting with guests, and two junior staff filling water glasses, replacing cutlery, and clearing plates.
A bread plate had arrived whilst I was discussing the wines with Leo, but not introduced. When I asked, I was told it was a Semolina roll, with butter, topped with Maldon Salt, the bread roll cut into four pieces. I found the bread very boring, but was delighted that it came with butter.
The restaurant seats 40 patrons, at round tables seating up to four at a table with beautiful classic comfortable tan leather chairs. The table decor is minimalist: no tablecloth, a cream coloured sideplate, a wine glass by Zalto from Austria, feather-light, and a water glass from the same
brand, with a white linen napkin with a bread knife. A knife, fork, and steak knife made by Amefa from Germany were available at the table, on a cream ceramic stand.
In the mean time I had started chatting to the lady sitting nearest me, and they introduced themselves as Andrea and Carlos from Rio de Janeiro. She told me that South African wines have a very good reputation in Brazil.
The first dish arrived, with a young chef presenting it to me. Amberjack is a fish type I had never heard of before, the charming chef telling me that it resembles yellowtail, which was served simply, raw ceviche style, with a seaweed vinaigrette, a first for me, reflecting Chef Roberto’s Japanese heritage, made with Kombo seaweed oil. The vinaigrette brought out the freshness of the dish, and pink colour variations of the fish were attractive. The pine nuts added good texture to the dish.
I could have had 3 gram of caviar added to the dish. Whilst I did
not go for the wine pairing with the Tasting Menu, I was told that this dish was paired with Sake. I drank the glass of Testalonga Baby Bendito Keep on Punching Chenin Blanc 2018 with the first six courses.
Dish number two was presented by a well-spoken and confident lady chef. A large steamed oyster, to which apple juice had been added, as was fresh seaweed, pickled green apple, and parsley oil, was served with the chervil herb. I was sitting nearest the oyster and clam tank in the restaurant. The texture in the dish came from the crunchy herb.
Dish three was Manoic cream, served with one very thin slice of cured pork belly, and sprinkled with manoic powder. Manoic is a Brazilian root from the Amazon, which had been made as a crisp, served with a mushroom vinaigrette and sprinkled with a mushroom powder. The dish had a light salty taste, perhaps created by the pork curing for 60 days in a refrigerator in the restaurant, next to the oyster and clam tank.
This dish offered the optional 3 gram of Italian truffle. I found the presentation of this light cream dish on a cream plate disappointing, it not standing out in its plating.
Dish number four was a Mussel Escabeche dish, but I am allergic to mussels, so the chefs had adjusted my dish to become a baroa potato and carrot juice dish, with Brazil nut milk, sliced button mushrooms as well as dried winter mushrooms, topped with thinly sliced truffle. The indigenous potato is yellow in colour, and its taste came through, the truffle being more low key in taste.
The dish was explained to me by Chef Roberto, whilst we were chatting about the World’s 50 Best Restaurant list. He told me that he has eaten at the best restaurants in Japan, and in South America of course, and expressed his disappointment with some of the restaurants on the latter continent, describing them as boring.
The fifth dish was a barbecue grilled and charred shrimp sourced from Rio de Janeiro, served with aromatic
green peppers, sorrel, parsley oil, and a sauce of pirão, a fish-based broth thickened with yuca (a local potato) flour and Brazilian nut milk. The shrimp was crunchy and larger than the shrimp size I am used to from home. The sauce was delicious, and the spoon was particularly handy to finish it all with.
Red snapper was served for the second time
in two days, having been on the Lasai Menu two days prior too. It was sourced from South Brazil, and was served with chopped up crunchy heart of palm and coconut, a foam made of coconut milk, and a Lambretta broth made from Brazilian clam stock.
It is unfortunate that the newest kitchen team member, having worked at the restaurant for just a week, presented the main course, sounding unconfident, and making explanation mistakes. I luckily checked with Sous Chef Nilson, who explained with honesty the chef’s work and employment status. The meat came from the rack of lamb, medallions presented with charred cherry tomatoes, pickled carrots, green beans thinly sliced, parsley yoghurt sauce, topped with basil garnish, and a lamb jus. This dish offered patrons the opportunity to exchange the lamb with Wagyu beef at almost R1000 extra for the dish.
At this stage I had switched to the Malbec, and what a beauty she was. I had tried a number of Argentinian Malbecs in Mendoza, but none came close to this smooth fruity wine, it being the wine which the restaurant paired with the lamb on its Tasting Menu wine pairing. I was so
taken with this wine and the dish, that my cutlery fell into the plate before I photographed it, so the kitchen called me to their plating station so that I could photograph another.
The final dish was the dessert presented by Chef Niada, who had presented the oyster dish earlier on. She described it as fresh strawberry, strawberry sorbet, vanilla cream foam, shards made of dried milk, topped with Szechuan pepper. This dish too could have looked better in a bowl of colour.
My taxi driver was 15 minutes early in fetching me, so I had to request the bill from Leo, being charged the Tasting Menu cost of 345 Real, water at 15 Real, the glass of Chenin Blanc at 80 Real, the Malbec at 70 Real, and the 12,5 % service fee, a total of 573 Real (R2120).
I was able to get a photograph of Chef Roberto in the Electrolux kitchen, each chef apron
carrying the brand name. I gave him my feedback, and I think he was surprised that not having fish cutlery in a predominantly fish restaurant was top of my list.
Chef Alberto is of Japanese and German extraction, and it reflects in his menu partly, even though he uses Brazilian ingredients. The menu is simple, in English, and one receives it when one arrives – no secret blind eating here, a plus. At the Chef’s Table I was almost in the kitchen, the chefs totally relaxed in preparing the dishes an arms length away from us. I chatted to Sous Chef Nilson Chaves, with very good English. Chef Alberto arrived at 21h00, and stayed until close of service. He came to chat, told me that he studied at a cookery college, as well as worked in London for six years, for Gordon Ramsay amongst others, also learning to speak ‘proper’ English, he added.
Surprising was to see the Testalonga Baby Bendito wine range from the Swartland, Oteque stocking a light sparkling wine, the Chenin Blanc, Carignan, and Cinsaut from Craig Hawkins. They had a Saffraan from Mount Arbor on the wine list too. I chose a glass of the Testalonga Chenin Blanc 2018, and a Malbec 2016, from Chateau Combel La-Serre, from Cahors in France, the original home of Malbec. It was unbelievable to see how the wine by the glass list was dominated by French and Italian wines. Sommelier and Restaurant Manager Leo knows his wines, and he would love to get a bigger allocation of the Testalonga wines. He is a very reserved person, it being difficult to connect with him. He did tell me that he has done Levels one and two of the international wine education, but that he may not complete Level three of WSET, it not offering him what he needs for his wine selection, he being more interested in the winemakers behind each wine. He is researching this himself.
I loved the eight course Tasting Menu, one not leaving hungry, most other restaurants I ate at at this level serving Tasting Menus with 12 plus courses. I loved the brilliant single overhead lamp for each place setting, excellent for the food pics. I loved the spoon offered for each dish with a sauce, the water was topped up and ice added at my request, the chefs serving the dishes and explaining them, the lively happy playlist being a mixed bunch including the Beatles, the excellent wines, the three-ingredient dishes, the plates and bowls the food was served in, the light as a feather Zalto glasses, the decor, with tan leather chairs, there being little evidence of salt in the food, the Aesop hand soap in the bathroom, for its texture and fragrance, and being lucky to have Andrea and Carlos sit next to me, telling me that our country’s wines have such a good reputation.
I missed fish knives for their many fish dishes, and some of the younger chefs let down the kitchen by not explaining more about the dish, just repeating what was printed on the menu, perhaps a language issue.
Of all the South American Top restaurants I ate at, this one had the most locals eating at it, I hearing no English spoken by anyone else. I look forward to seeing Oteque climb up the World’s 50 Best Restaurants List.
POSTSCRIPT 3/9/19: After posting this Review, I tried to reach Craig Hawkins of Testalonga, to provide him with feedback about the popularity of his wines in Rio de Janiero. Having found a reference to Craig on Google as the winemaker of Lammershoek, I called the wine estate, only to be told that he left five years ago, now focusing on his own wines. I was told that they didn’t have his phone number. I Googled Testalonga, and found his cell number, and was delighted that he answered his phone. He proudly told me that his wines are exported to 27 countries. He appeared pleased with my feedback about two top Rio De Janeiro restaurants stocking his wines, as the only South African wines on their wine menu. I requested a meeting with him when next he is in Cape Town, to interview him for a story, Craig appearing to be a maverick making superb wines.
POSTSCRIPT 4/9/19 I received the following email from Craig Hawkins of Testalonga:
Thanks for the mail and call.
We are very happy with our importer in Brazil, they are doing a great job there.
I am not sure when I will be in CT next, we are extremely busy here on the farm with young vines and upcoming bottlings, it’s a crazy time of year.
So I cannot say for certain when I will be that side and have time for this.
Thanks a lot
And have a great day
Oteque, Condé De Irajá 581, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Tel +55 21 3486 5758 www.oteque.com Instagram: @oteque_ @robertolandgraf Tuesday – Saturday.
Chris von Ulmenstein, WhaleTales Blog: www.chrisvonulmenstein.com/blog Tel +27 082 55 11 323 Twitter:@Ulmenstein Facebook: Chris von Ulmenstein Instagram: @Chrissy_Ulmenstein