Alberto Landgraf brings a taste of Brazil to London: A feat of culinary chemistry
Alberto Landgraf hasn’t had an easy trip to Shoreditch – and I’m not talking metaphorically. As we settle down at Lyle’s, James Lowe’s fashionably under-furnished Michelin-starred joint, the Brazilian chef recounts his whirlwind romance with Eunice, who left him stranded for days at Madrid airport. But perhaps the storm was telling us an important message: that this is talent worth holding on to.
Sadly, Landgraf is only fleetingly gracing us with his presence, summoned to the capital to craft a collaborative tasting menu in his old friend’s open kitchen. Things have changed since he and Lowe met over ten years ago at the chef’s first restaurant in São Paulo; today, he holds two Michelin stars at Oteque in Rio de Janeiro, and sits comfortably at number 12 on Latin America’s 50 Best list. This evening, the deferential design of this stylish North London space – bare, white walls; low hanging lights and vast factory windows – behaves like a blank gallery for his food, a triumph of open-fire cooking and local, fair-trade produce.
The opening appetiser looks alarming in print – Scallops on Toast reads just like a Shoreditch fad – but the chef’s understanding of acidity instantly assuages all my doubts. Walter White levels of precision are a defining characteristic of the evening, and like Heisenberg (bear with me), this cook understands his ingredients. Scantily clad in slithers of black brazil nut, the shellfish is able to flaunt its subtle flavour.
The Goose Coxinha is also deceptively light. Landgraf introduces the croquette as “the fish and chips of Brazil”, but his haunted reminiscence – “got drunk, ate a bad coxinha, succumbed to sickness and self-loathing” – sounds more like the familiar tale of a late-night kebab. Nonetheless, his resultant determination to do this popular street snack justice on a premium tasting menu gives rise to something wonderful: a crisp golden egg of molten, meaty goodness, offset with a fresh açai dip.
Landgraf specialises in seafood, and this becomes increasingly clear with the starter of squid, which is soft, shrouded in a smokey fermented tomato consommé. The glazed turbot that follows is also meticulously counterbalanced with an accompaniment of tucupi, a sauce from the wild manioc root, which is soaked up by feijão fradinho (black-eyed peas) and heart of palm.
Considering the chef’s use of alternative milks, it’s interesting that there’s only one purely plant-based dish – but it’s another ode to the power of the ph scale. Sweet potato comes drizzled in a zingy mushroom vinaigrette, grounded by Brazil nut cream and earthy truffle shavings.
Up next, the mutton course blushes irresistibly, the meat perfectly pink but maintaining its modesty under leaves of chicory. It’s accompanied by a nice addition of lamb offal farofa, a classic Brazilian side dish of toasted casava flour. It’s a characteristically dry mix, but the cashew nut cream brings welcome moisture to the mouth.
The seemingly simple desserts are intriguing enough to maintain momentum. The first marks the final appearance of the Brazil nut, this time ground into a beguiling ice cream. The raw nut unapologetically retains some of its granular texture – and gets away with it – and melts beautifully into tart British rhubarb.
Quindim, Landgraf explains – probably for the 30th time this evening – is a kind of set custard made using coconut milk and egg yolks. It’s our final dish of the night, a treat borrowed from a Portuguese tradition, and it fittingly captures the essence of a pastel de nata in one glorious orange orb, topped with the crunch of sugary buckwheat crumble. It’s so sweet and rich that it risks being sickly, but in this perfect portion, it takes me to that euphoric edge of excess. As my Grandpa quite aptly put it: “If I had more, I would enjoy it less.”
The chef’s food functions like a wakeup call for the senses – this meal makes up for all the time lost in lockdown to bland days that blend into one another. The menu is a feat of culinary chemistry that experiments with contrast: British and Brazilian; bitter and sweet; refined and comforting. We spot a smiling Santiago Lastra across the restaurant on our visit, and it seems fitting that this young chef, who just earnt his own Michelin star at KOL, should be celebrating here. Both, in their own way, are testing Latin American cooking in revolutionary ways, starting what looks to be an irreversible reaction.
Photos: Filippo L’Astorina