Rio de Janeiro may have its sexy beach scene, soaring mountains, glamorous fashion and the 2016 Summer Olympics, but Belo Horizonte boasts a surprising cultural heart and soul, writes Elyse Glickman
photographed by the author and by Rachel Weil
Elyse Glickman is US west coast editor of Lucire.
Time and again, Brazilian culture has found its way onto the world’s pop cultural stage. From Rio’s decadent annual Carnaval to fashion icons (H. Stern jewellery; Havaianas flip-flops; supermodel Gisèle Bündchen) to its cuisine and tropical fruits (açai) to soccer and bossa nova music, the country and its people have always managed to find ways to capture the collective imagination of people throughout the world. The latest wave of carioca attitude is turning the rest of the world on to the nation’s music, fine arts, fashion, beauty, cuisine and night-life.
Of course, there’s another side to Brazil beyond Rio’s glitter, and Belo Horizonte, 275 miles to the north, defines it with a down-to-earth sensibility. It is also fitting that the capital city of Minas Gerais state, a major production centre of dairy products, coffee, various agricultural commodities and (of course) mineral-, metal- and gem-mining, has food, cultural and fashion scenes worth digging into. Because this city will host some of the 2016 Rio Summer Olympic Games events, it now stands as a diamond in the rough, with construction, limited public transportation and daunting traffic. However, even as it is in the midst of being cut into something finer, there’s no time like the present to see the real Brazil beyond postcards and television commercials.
In other words, if São Paulo is equivalent to New York (as the country’s financial centre), and Rio to Los Angeles (with its global influence on pop culture), Belo Horizonte may be the Chicago or Dallas of Brazil—a place that may exist in the shadows of the higher-profile towns until you get to know it.
Mining and buying
Although Rio is a showier city from a fashion and architectural standpoint, the ideas for the Brazilian æsthetic percolate in Belo Horizonte, where many of Brazil’s designers are based. The best shopping strategy is to start casual and work your way up to fancy. This makes the city’s Mercado Central (Central Market), opened in 1929, a good first stop that’s worth a half- or full hour because of its early opening time. It is loaded with decent, inexpensive souvenirs (eye-catching shopping totes, adorable children’s clothing and table linens). It is also quite lovely for an impromptu breakfast of cheeses, meats, unusual snack foods and inspired “guy gifts” such as an exotic bottle of cachaça. Another “authentic place” to shop for bargains and people-watch is the Sunday “hippie market” downtown, featuring a mix of wares from local jewellery and clothing designers, antiques and food concessions. From there, the next steps are up to Lourdes and Savassi, which are the city’s chic-est enclaves, yet remain decidedly approachable and unpretentious.
Lourdes is home to numerous hidden fashion shops, and a huge American-style mall. However, if you have very limited time for shopping, Patio Savaasi is the shopping haunt of choice, thanks to its manageable size and sharper focus on local labels. Mr Cat offers high quality shoes with classic silhouettes, while Via Mia is a fantastic place for those looking for non-leather shoes and accessories with the same level of comfort, eye-popping colour and fashion-forward styling. Rio swimwear designer Lenny has an outpost here, as does the preppy chain Osklen. However, if you don’t mind spending a few extra reals for a statement piece, don’t miss Lucy in the Sky, Maria Filo, 2nd Floor, BoBo, Raro Efeito (which has carioca chic in a broader range of sizes) and Dress To.
Via Cristina in Savaasi is a perfect post-shopping spot for a drink and a nosh. You can sample a few of 916 cachaças (Brazil’s national spirit, and a cousin to rum, with its sugar base), and a couple of a half-dozen caipirinhas. Pours are generous, so you’ll need to offset the punch of the sugar cane juice-based spirit with fried appetizers or a steak plate. If you’re looking for something upscale, get a reservation ahead of time at Trindade in Lourdes. Tony Harion, cocktail consultant and brand ambassador for Grey Goose Vodka and Leblon Cachaça, insists Trindade is the can’t-miss essential stop for foodies. The namesake restaurant of Chef Fred Trindade (one of Brazil’s top food television celebrities) categorizes its food as a reconciliation of authentic Brazilian ingredients with modern techniques. While the menu is sophisticated and tempting across the board, a venture into the unknown, ordering a daily special, may result in rich rewards for an adventurous eater. Our “finds” included a just-harvested heart of palm appetizer and two stews (seafood and vegetarian variations) which exceeded expectations. This also provides our astute waiter opportunity to introduce us to surprisingly nice wines from Brazil’s deep south, including a 2005 Don Abel cabernet sauvignon with the tang of a young wine and the finish of a mature red.
Food for thought
Beyond Trindade, Belo Horizonte’s restaurant scene mirrors the fashion landscape, with many of the restaurants seeming to be more about substance (i.e. excellent tasting food and large portions) over style—until you dig a little deeper and find some sparkling examples of where gastronomy in Brazil is heading. Above all else, chefs have ingredients they grew up with as children rather than creating something “global”. Casual restaurants and Mom-and-Pop places, meanwhile, are designed to make all guests feel at home, whether they serve their specialties à la carte, buffet or family style. Portions are enormous and colourful, taking full advantage of fruits, vegetables, herbs and spices.
Women are also making their mark in the local dining scene, and charcuterie-focused Salumera Central has generated a buzz through cured meats and sharable plates created by chef Ana Motta. Though the warehouse ambiance is spare, the complex flavours of her lamb sausage sliders, meats from her Gran Porcaria plate and her curated selection of Minas Gerais cheeses are anything but. Our main course, a pork calf with roasted potato and a succotash of eggplant, carrot and zucchini, provides and elegant contrast to her simple starter plates.
The place to start a gastronomic expedition in earnest in Belo Horizonte is downtown. Mercado Central merits a morning hour-long visit, and falls somewhere between a no-frills market-place providing residents with fresh foodstuffs and kitschy collection of shops selling cachaça, hot sauces and souvenirs. Edifício Maleta is ideal for midday lunch, especially on one’s first day in town. While it was the city’s most luxurious hotel a half century ago, today the first two floors are a gloriously gritty collage of short-order restaurants, buffet-style eateries and a few modern bar-cafés, flanked by used book and record stores. One can eat extremely well for under US$5. However, if one opts for a sit-down meal in a place a touch fancier (such as the decidedly trendy Nine Bar & Restaurant), you can get stylish plating and ambiance for about US$7, drinks included.
Cantino do Lucas, a stalwart establishment opened in 1962 at the base of Edificio Maleta, combines the ambiance of a German tavern and a menu combining the founders’ Italian roots, Brazilian ingredients and the imagination of chefs who have endeavoured to make their kitchen “international”. My friends and I opt for the house specialty—Surprise Beef Fillet—a share platter for two (which, in truth, feeds four) headlined with a breaded steak fillet filled with ham and cheese, partnered with fried eggs, fries, breaded bananas, and a chicken “risotto” all plated tableside by a dapper and attentive waiter. The whole feast, including fresh-squeezed limeaide, sets us back US$25—for the entire table!
By night, Edifício Maleta’s second floor becomes a hotbed of cocktail innovation set against an art gallery backdrop and people-watching parade that would make Andy Warhol proud. Dub is one of the best of the bunch, with its beautiful murals and liquid masterpieces devised by Joao Morandi, who moonlights as one of the city’s most sought-after cocktail menu consultants, along with Tony Harion and fellow master mixologists Filipe Brazil and Tiago Santos. This coterie is also responsible for making Lourdes and Savaasi destinations after dark with atmospheric bars Gilboa, Jângal and Meet Me at the Yard.
Gems of culture
To go deeper into the region’s history, hit the Museu de Artes & Ofícios, located in the city’s former Central Station. The thoughtful assemblage of artefacts acquired and overseen by the foundation of prominent banking family (the Instituto Cultural Flávio Gutierrez) illustrates the role of individuals in different industries in shaping Brazil over four centuries. Baking, flour-milling, cooking and iron work are among the fields represented, along with informative panels providing in-depth explanation as to how the various tools and artefacts were used in the production of different products and services.
Circuito Cultural Praça da Liberdade (Liberty Square Cultural Circuit), meanwhile, is Belo Horizonte’s undisputed cultural hub and the ultimate example of repurposing done right, with its inspired use of grand, European-influenced former government buildings. Even with a name that sounds more like a bank than an artistic haven, the Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil (Cultural Center Bank of Brazil, CCBB) is an impressive, international-calibre fine art museum with a vibrant selection of permanent and temporary exhibitions showcasing Brazilian and internationally renowned artists. Other museums include the Memorial Minas Gerais Vale, a high-tech museum in the old Treasury Department devoted to the literature, art and history of Minas Gerais, and the Museu das Minas e do Metal in the old Education Department, which will also please history buffs.
Day trip destinations, meanwhile, provide a lush and tropical contrast to Belo Horizonte’s urban centre. An hour outside of town (not factoring in the traffic), Centro de Arte Contemporânea Inhotim is a feast for all of the senses, as a remarkable hybrid of contemporary art museum and botanical garden. Many of the outdoor installations have politically charged environmental messages, some executed with a sense of melancholy and others with a profound sense of whimsy and charm. An extra punch of irony is factored in via their juxtaposition with Brazil’s lush plant life and the presence of birds and butterflies.
Xapuri, tucked away in the leafy Braunas neighbourhood, elevates generations-old one-pot recipes, grilling and marinade techniques into impressive offerings both carnivores and vegetarians will appreciate. Ceramic plates decorate the walls and beams, while rows of wooden tables and benches extend from a covered area out into a multi-tiered landscaped patio. However, Xapuri’s most distinctive feature is a fully ignited brick oven flanked by rows of sausages at the end of the entrance-way. While the aromas of grilling steaks are quite alluring, the Gardens of Roberto Burle Marx (a cornucopia of vegetarian delights inspired by one of Brazil’s most legendary landscape architects) just may have an omnivore rethinking her diet.
Another place worth hitting off the beaten track is Bäcker Brewery. Although the ambiance feels strangely American with its décor and classic rock soundtrack, their craft beers are exceptional, as is their coffee, roasted with malt used in some of their beers. Sturdy main dishes meld local ingredients and gastro-pub inventiveness, and include a rib-eye steak with a Brazil nut crust; ‘Ranch Food’, consisting of rice, beans, bacon, sausage and beef jerky; and a bold okra side dish.
While gems and excavations put Belo Horizonte on the map generations ago, today it just may be the city’s renaissance-in-progress that will make it a place of discovery in this century. •
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