In general, it seems that Bahians do not like to eat at restaurants. Street food, little hole-in-the-wall places, vendors on the beach, these things Salvador does and does well; but the idea of dressing up and heading to an expensive restaurant for a long meal does not seem to be in the wheelhouse of most soterpolitanos. Which is why, as Chicagoans, we had to give Salvador’s most acclaimed restaurant a try.
When we read Veja Salvador’s annual food issue and their glowing reviews of Paraiso Tropical (Best Moqueca in the City! Best Chef in the City! ), we knew we had to go. That would be the difficult part: tucked away in the central Cabula neighborhood, the restaurant is almost impossible to get to from Barra. We had to take a bus to a large shopping mall and from there a cab – gasp! – through the only road leading to the isolated bairro. A confused cab driver to boot, and a trip of nearly two hours and R$40 (about US$25) and we were finally there.
But no one else was. We were so sure to make a reservation, we had to laugh when we arrived at 5:30pm on a Wednesday – about four hours before Bahians usually eat – to a huge, and largely empty restaurant. Inside, though, it was something of a paradise. The dress code seemed typically Bahian, with the only other couple donning jeans and tennis shoes. Simple wooden tables surrounded a central area of greenery. Our second floor table looked over the restaurant interior, while a large jabitiquaba tree’s branches nearly touched our plates – and oh how we wanted to grab some of the fruits!
The menu was extensive, with many moqueca offerings. Beto Pimentel, the Chef, has done a masterful job putting inventive and welcome touches on Bahia’s most famous dish. His offerings were divided into traditional and special moqeucas, and we opted for one of the special shrimp moquecas, to split. To this day, we are not quite sure of all that was in it. Fibrous nuts, tomatoes, peppers, any number of small sea creatures, long noodles of gelatinous consistency, and much more dendê oil than we were accustomed too (and we believe less coconut milk). Accompaniments were shockingly good farofa, with an orange peel added to absorb a little moisture and add flavor; spicy sauce made of malagueta peppers (good for M and his spice addiction), dried yucca; and rice.
All of which was fantastic. The combinations of flavors of the moqueca felt more like intriguing contradictions we were pleased to be eating. The many different textures and shades of foods all cooked together was a seeming metaphor for all Bahian cuisine in one dish. Unwaveringly complex and yet consistently delicious, we know this would easily be the best moqueca we would have in Bahia, or at bare minimum, the most inventive. We were sure to eat slowly, savoring this dish, as we knew we would not be back anytime soon. But, of course, there was dessert!
Paraiso Tropical, in addition to moquecas, is famous for its roscas: think of these as fresh fruit juice, frozen, and then very lightly thawed to a smooth but icy consistency, then piled high on a dish. We opted for the mango. Admittedly there was not much to it – essentially frozen mango juice, but still smooth and fresh. We had to be sure to eat quickly, otherwise it was going to melt all over our hands.
Our best surprise of the evening: a second dessert. With the check, the waiter brought us a tray of fresh Brazilian fruits and a plastic bag. We were baffled about what to do with them until we saw the restaurant’s other patrons putting the fruits in a bag to take home. We were happy to oblige, picking up a week’s worth of fruits: guavas, pinhas, and a mango.
To be honest, if you only have a few days in Salvador, this is not a place you should go. Stick to the wonderful beach and street food and the more famous parts of town, where you can meet more locals. But if you have a lot of time, and are willing to splurge, meander your way to Paraiso Tropical and experience the finest dining the city has to offer. The ambience is definitely Bahian upscale – read: American casual – and your taste buds will not leave disappointed.
Our favorite part? We only learned upon trying to pay they didn’t accept credit cards, only cash. We had no cash, and no ATM. The solution – apparently a common problem – was to give us a sheet of paper with the chef’s bank account number, and instruct us to just deposit the money tomorrow. We could have left getting this meal for free. But for food like that we are more happy to pay, so the next day I walked into Banco do Brasil and deposited R$160 (about $90) into the account. Well worth it.