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March 12, 2006

The New São Paulo

By DAN SHAW
IT’S a sultry January day in São Paulo, and dozens of people are dining beneath a gargantuan fig tree with dramatic horizontal limbs reminiscent of “Jurassic Park.” An entire restaurant has been built around this 130-year-old tree, and the expansive glass-ceilinged patio is so ingeniously constructed that it’s hard to tell whether they are sitting inside or out.
Families and couples can sit for hours in Figueira Rubaiyat, a popular gathering spot for the traditional Brazilian Sunday lunch. They’ll snack on hot, puffy cheese rolls and drink caipirinhas, an icy national cocktail made with limes and a sugar cane liquor called cachaça. They will devour thick, charred steaks and bountiful seafood casseroles, enjoying the pleasures of summer in the city and the feel of the warm sun on their bare arms.
São Paulo’s sane and sensual side is not always so easy to find. At first glance, this sprawling city of 10 million — the cultural and economic capital of Brazil — appears to be a hard-edged urban jungle a place whose seemingly haphazard design, a bit like Los Angeles, can make it hard for the outsider to negotiate. São Paulo is no Paris, Rio or Buenos Aires — cities where you can just show up and fall in love on a first pass-through.
Even on Rua Oscar Freire, the narrow boulevard that is often compared to Rodeo Drive, a visitor would not immediately be seduced by the fashion boutiques with unfamiliar names. One of the most original and enchanting stores on the street, Clube Chocolate, is so chic that it has no display windows and is so exclusive that security guards flank the heavy wooden door that hides the glorious, airy interior. How would you know that inside there’s a bright, three-story atrium with floor-to-ceiling palm trees and a sandy beach that you reach by descending a polished steel circular staircase?
São Paulo does not go out of its way to cater to foreign tourists, and this can be a blessing. At restaurants, you will not find yourself surrounded by Germans, Australians and other Americans. At the flea markets, you will not see couples wearing fanny packs and taking photographs. At museums and churches, you will not find crowds. You get to experience life undiluted and witness a South American city in transition.
One gets a sense of the city’s determination to become a player on the international hipster circuit at three boutique hotels: the Emiliano, the Unique and the Fasano. When I arrived at the Emiliano on a Friday at noon, after a 45-minute cab ride from the airport, my room was not ready. Before I could settle into the bright, minimalist lobby, with its avant-garde armchairs wrapped in hundreds of yards of golden rope by the Campana brothers — the Brazilian duo whose work has been shown at the Museum of Modern Art in New York— I was escorted by one of the good-looking desk clerks to the glass-enclosed rooftop spa. He handed me a fluffy white bathrobe and white Havaianas, Brazil’s famous rubber flip-flops, encouraging me to soak in the wooden hot tubs, cool off in the marble plunge pool or take a shower. I did all three.
I had decided to come to São Paulo for a long weekend because it may be one of the easiest overnight flights around. I took a nonstop nine-hour American Airlines flight out of New York at around 10 p.m. and arrived in São Paulo in the late morning. (In January, when I went, São was three hours ahead of New York; the difference can vary from one to three hours depending on shifting Daylight Savings times.) Dinner and breakfast were served close to take off and landing, so I could sleep for nearly seven solid hours and wake up ready for a full day.
My room at the Emiliano was soothing and sybaritic: white Egyptian cotton sheets and six pillows of different firmness; an Eames lounge chair upholstered in an oatmeal fabric; a wall of honey-colored wood that hid closets and two Sub-Zero drawer refrigerators stocked with drinks; and a large bathroom with a view of neighboring penthouses. As the guest services manager tried to teach me how to work all the lighting controls (which I never mastered), she told me she could send a butler to unpack my bags. (I declined.)
From the posh to the prosaic, São Paulo can sometimes seem like a European capital. There’s the Metropolitan Cathedral, a building with Gothic and Byzantine elements said to hold 8,000 worshipers, the 1911 Municipal Theater inspired by the Paris Opéra, art museums whose buildings are as noteworthy as their exhibitions and a downtown public food hall where everything from baby pigs to hot peppers are displayed in their stalls like art installations.
The Pinacoteca do Estado is an outstanding example of how a historic structure can be preserved and turned into a 21st-century museum. Stripped down to the bricks as if it were an ancient ruin, the 1897 building now has a series of interior skylit courtyards with sculptures by Rodin and Niki de Saint-Phalle and an impressive collection ranging from 19th-century landscapes to 20th-century abstracts by pioneering modernists such as Waldemar Cordeiro and Willys de Castro.
Paulistas are very proud of their modernist architecture, especially the Copan, a 1950 apartment building designed by Oscar Niemeyer, who worked with Le Corbusier on the United Nations and created Brasília, the capital city. Elsewhere, a repurposed 1930 train station, Sala São Paulo, has been turned into a strikingly contemporary symphonic hall. The Museum of Art of São Paulo (MASP), a landmark 1968 building by Lina Bo Bardi that is suspended above a plaza by colonnades at either end without any interior supports, has a collection that includes works by Renoir, Cézanne, Manet, Degas and Modigliani.
While traveling around town by car is essential, it is easy to stroll for hours in the Jardins district, a pedestrian-friendly village that would have appealed to the urban ecologist Jane Jacobs, who wrote that a “good city street neighborhood achieves a marvel of balance between its people’s determination to have essential privacy and their simultaneous wishes for differing degrees of contact, enjoyment or help from the people around.” Set on a sloping grid of narrow streets, the Jardins has scores of restaurants, sidewalk cafes and luxury high-rise apartment buildings separated from the sidewalks by gates and lush foliage.
“When you are in the Jardins, it’s very easy to think you are in the richest country in the world,” said Lauer Alves Nunes dos Santos, a semiotics professor I met while having lunch at Prêt Café, a small Jardins restaurant tucked away in a restored house. As an American dining in a neighborhood hangout — where a buffet set out in pretty glass bowls and iron pans makes you feel as though you’ve stumbled upon a private lunch party — I was a novelty. The owner, Beatriz Ticcoulat Alves de Araújo, came out to meet me and asked if I enjoyed the gnocchi, fish stew in shrimp sauce, stuffed zucchini, rice and beans, green salad and coconut pudding. “This is the type of food I would serve you if you came to my house for lunch,” she said.
There is nothing homey about the sexy and ominous Unique Hotel. Designed by Ruy Ohtake, the ark-shaped hotel seems like a set for a James Bond movie, with its darkened windows, secret doors and suited security guards. To get there, my taxi passed through Jardim Europa, a neighborhood of shady streets with baroque and modernist houses hidden behind tall walls — the Brazilian equivalent of Beverly Hills. This L.A. moment continued at the Unique’s rooftop Skye bar, where cocktails are served outdoors next to a lap pool with panoramic city views. Even on a cloudy night, there is a sunset glow, with the terrace artfully illuminated by pink floodlights.
Summer weekends tend to be quiet in São Paulo as residents head for the beaches or mountains, but many of the style-conscious families and young professionals who do stay in town end up dining at Spot, a bustling glass-box brasserie. The menu features multi-ingredient green salads, inventive pastas and small steaks with luscious sauces and crackling fried potatoes. It was hard for me to concentrate on the excellent food, though, as a steady parade of tanned women in miniskirted halter dresses kept joining a table where two movie-star-handsome men continue buying rounds of drinks for all. It seemed like an episode of “Sex in the City” dubbed into Portuguese.
After dinner, I went to Bar Balcão, where a two-sided serpentine bar winds around the restaurant. “This bar is popular with artists, poets and academics,” said Ana Amèlia Genioli, an architect who was having a late supper. “But São Paulo is not Brazil. You need to see the countryside.” I explained that I was more fascinated by cities, and told her what a Brazilian artist, Ronaldo Bregola, had said to me: “Of course São Paulo is not Brazil, but Paris is not France and London is not England.”
São Paulo is certainly a world-class city when it comes to shopping, no matter your taste or budget. Bargain-hunting in Sunday’s Liberdade flea market, I bought inexpensive handmade crafts: children’s puppets, wooden spoons and hand-dyed silk scarves in tropical hues. I loaded up on flip-flops at Page Calçados, which looks like every off-price shoe store I avoid back home. It is in a downtown wholesale district and carries Havaianas in dozens of styles and colors that are rarely imported to the United States at just 10.99 to 13.99 reais a pair ($4.95 to $6.35, at 2.2 reais to the dollar).
But the high-end shopping is even more engaging — even if you are only browsing. I wasn’t sure whether to visit Daslu, the department store that had been profiled as a citadel of conspicuous consumption in The New Yorker three years ago. But then I met Walkiria Vaney, a Brazilian who used to live in New York and described Daslu as much bigger and grander than Bergdorf Goodman. I had to see for myself.
You can’t walk into Daslu off the street; you must arrive by car (or helicopter) and pass through a security checkpoint. The store looks like a five-star resort hotel and has the ambience of an exclusive country club where everyone is shopping instead of playing golf or tennis. In the store are 10 coffee and Champagne bars, and boutiques selling everything from Frette sheets and Prada bags to Aspen ski vacations and Harley-Davidsons. Daslu’s staffing provides insight into Brazilian class structure. Sexy, animated women with good haircuts are ringing up sales while a battalion of stoic housekeepers in French maid’s uniforms silently straighten shelves in the background.
That Paulistas know how to spend lavishly is also apparent at D.O.M., a restaurant run by the celebrity chef Alex Atala, considered the country’s Jean-Georges Vongerichten for his reinterpretation of Brazilian ingredients — black beans, codfish, ferofa — with a French twist. The dining room is hushed and corporate-looking but attracts a diverse clientele: Brazilian pop stars like Clara Moreno and her entourage, couples splurging for a special occasion, and rich families so blasé about fine dining that they talk on their cellphones while they eat.
They should pay more attention, because the food is superb. A friend and I had the four-course tasting menu for 160 reais a person: shrimp with a papaya mango salsa; codfish brandade in a reduction of black beans; a fish called filhote in a crust of manioc, a root vegetable; duck confit with peppercorns. The unconventional cheese course was served by a waiter who twirled a mixture of potato purée and Gruyère with two spoons in the air as if it were taffy, before divvying it up onto each plate.
After such a refined meal, the idea of a loud nightclub was out of the question, so I ended up having a nightcap at another of the boutique hotels, the Fasano, where the sumptuous masculine décor suggests that it attracts more hedge-fund managers than models, and whose Baretto bar is a contemporary riff on a 1930’s cocktail lounge.
On my last day, I headed back to the Jardins, and its world-class shops, curious to see the interior of Galeria Melissa. Designed by Karim Rashid of New York, the store’s signature all-rubber high heels — by designers such as Alexandre Herchcovitch (whose rock star fashions are sold at his boutique around the corner) and the Campana Brothers — are displayed in plastic bubbles that hang from the ceiling, creating a trippy “2001: A Space Odyssey” effect.
During a typical summer torrential rainstorm, I took cover at Cavalera, one of many stores that sell skintight Brazilian-made jeans and silky-soft cotton T-shirts. The salesclerks spoke little English, but they all looked like models and were eager to please, producing stack after stack of jeans, some embellished with Portuguese graffiti.
After an hour, it was still raining hard, so I ran across the street to Z Deli, an idiosyncratic place on Alameda Lorena, another street of fashionable shops. There, the buffet lunch includes brisket, pierogi, cole slaw and, improbably, gefilte fish. Run by two Jewish women, Zenaide Raw, who once lived in New York and speaks good English, and her sister Rosa, Z Deli made me feel like an insider. When Zenaide heard I was from the United States, she brought me a piece of rich poppy seed cake and sat down at the table. When I told her I was staying only three days, she scolded me: “How can you see everything in such a short time? Next time you have to see me first, and I will tell you what you should do.” I assured her that I would.
IF YOU GO
HOW TO GET THERE
Several airlines offer nonstop flights from New York. If you take American Airlines flight 951, which leaves New York at 10:20 p.m., you arrive in São Paulo at 9:40 a.m. The return flight leaves São Paulo at 10:35 p.m. and arrives at Kennedy at 6:06 a.m. My January coach ticket cost $928 with taxes.
HOW TO GET AROUND
Taxis are plentiful, but don’t expect your driver to speak English. The trip from the airport to my hotel was 75 reais ($34, at 2.2 reais to the dollar). A friend negotiated with a cabbie to stay with us all day for a flat fee of 150 reais.
WHERE TO STAY
The city now has three equally luxurious boutique hotels. All quote their rates in U.S. dollars. The country-city code is 55-11.
Emiliano, Rua Oscar Freire, 384; telephone 3069-4369; www.emiliano.com.br. Rooms begin at $299 a night.
Fasano, Rua Vittorio Fasano, 88; 3896-4000; www.fasano.com.br. Rates on weekends from $260; $295 on weekdays.
Unique, Avenida Brigadeiro Luis Antonio, 4700; 3055-4700; www.hotelunique.com.br. Rooms begin at $285.
WHERE TO EAT
Bar Balcão, Rua Dr. Melo Alves, 150; 3063-6091.
Canto Madalena, Rua Medeiros de Albequerque, 471; 3813-6814. Set in the Vila Madalena neighborhood, this open-air bar is known for typical Brazilian dishes like carne secca (salted air-dried beef), best served with a cold draft beer. Meals, all served for two, about 45 reais.
D.O.M., Rua Barão de Capanema, 549; 3088-0761. Dinner for two, with wine and drinks, about 600 reais.
Figueira Rubaiyat, Haddock Lobo, 1738, 3063-3888. Lunch for two, without wine, about 250 reais.
Prêt Café, Rua Bela Cintra, 2375; 3085-8544. Buffet lunch for two, without wine, about 80 reais.
Pitanga, Rua Original, 162; 3816-2914. Lunch for two, without wine, about 100 reais. Feijoada, the traditional Saturday lunch of black beans and meat, is part of a buffet served in a homey setting.
Spot, Al. Ministro Rocha Azevedo, 72; 3283-0946. Dinner for two with drinks about 200 reais.
Z Deli, Alameda Lorena, 1689; 3088-5644. Buffet lunch, without dessert or wine, about 74 reais.
WHERE TO SHOP
Alexandre Herchcovitch, Rua Haddock Lobo, 1151; 3063-2888, extension 111.
Cavalera, Alameda Lorena, 1682; 3083-5187.
Clube Chocolate, Rua Oscar Freire, 913; 3084-1500.
Daslu, Avenida Chedid Jafet, 131; 3841-4000.
Liberdade flea market, Liberdade Square. Sundays, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Native crafts sold under tents in a mostly Japanese neighborhood.
Galeria Melissa, Rua Oscar Freire, 827; 3084-3612.
Huis Clos, Rua Oscar Freire, 1105; 3088-7370. Exquisitely cut dresses and blouses by the Jil Sander of Brazil.
Page Calçados, Rua Comendador Alfonso Kherlakian, 102, 3326-6060.
WHAT TO SEE
Copan building, Avenida Ipiranga, 200.
Fundação María Luisa e Oscar Americano, Avenida Morumbi, 4077; 3742-0077; www.fundacaooscaramericano.org.br. A 1950 house museum surrounded by a lush tropical garden with 25,000 trees.
Galeria Fortes Vilaça, Rua Fradique Coutinho, 1500; 3032-7066. Gallery that shows contemporary work by Brazilians as well as Americans.
Millan Antonio, Rua Fradique Coutinho, 1360; 3031-6007; www.millanantonio.com.br. Gallery devoted to established and up-and-coming artists from Brazil.
Museum of Art of Sao Paulo, Avenida Paulista, 1578; 3251-5644; www.masp.art.br.
Metropolitan Cathedral Praça da Se; 3107-6832.
Municipal Market, Rua Cantareira, 306; s228-0339. A public food hall that resembles a United Nations bazaar.
Pinacoteca do Estado, Praça da Luz, 2; 3229-9844.
Sala São Paulo, Praça Júlio Prestes; 3337-5414; www.salasaopaulo.com.
Dan Shaw writes frequently about design
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