The first time I tasted Rolland Villard’s cooking, I realized Brazilian cuisine might have more than one French ambassador. We are talking of course, about Claude Troisgros (son of the legendary chef Jean Pierre Troigros) who came to Brazil 30 years ago and has been the most decorated French ambassador of Brazilian cuisine.
But with the recent economic boom, many other renowned chefs from around the globe came to live and work in the country.
Rolland Villard is one of them, and when I visited Le Pre Catelan, the restaurant under his command in Rio de Janeiro, I learned a few lessons.
First, it is foolish to think that only Brazilian chefs can truly understand Brazilian cuisine. Second, it is foolish to think that Mr. Troisgros reins solo. Third, that Rolland Villard is a chef whose work deserves a higher profile, broader notice, and worth following his career regardless where he comes from (France).
He landed in Brazil in 1998, after a period in Africa, and set base in Rio de Janeiro’s Sofitel Hotel, where he oversees the cuisine for all Sofitel hotels in South America.
Le Pré Catelan, the French-named jewel restaurant of the chain, is paying homage to the land that has welcomed Chef Villard with open arms, featuring theme menus that amaze our taste buds. Using a wide variety of ingredients Chef Rolland Villard combines icons from Brazilian gastronomy with the sophistication and refinement of French Cuisine.
The restaurant went through an extensive remodeling to match Villard’s vision of Brazilian cuisine. At the entrance, a stylish and modern madri pearl bar sets the mood.
Tropical flowers, coral displays, and a glass window overlooks Copacabana’s beach, indicating that you are about to experience Brazilian cuisine with all the ceremony and pampering associated with the best of fine dinning.
But this amazing décor is only a hint compared to the entertainment coming from the menu.
Mr.Villard is enamored with products from the Amazon, and created a menu featuring ingredients from the region. The menu, titled “A Gastronomic Trip through the Amazon” (R$290.00 , approx US$120.00), combines French techniques with typical ingredients of this region.
“This menu is different from all the others that I have already created. It is very important that the richness and variety of ingredients from the Amazon are appreciated not only by Brazilians but by foreigners as well who, like myself, are amazed with the daily discovery of infinite and exotic flavors”, affirms the chef.
During a trip to the Amazon, Mr. Villard tried a fish that until then was unknown to him, the Tambaqui. It was passion at first sight. From this trip, came the idea of “Tambaqui Ribs with Smoked Mashed Baroa Potatoes and Thyme Sauce”. Mr. Villard spent six months studying how to make smoked mashed baroa potatoes (a kind of potato typical from Brazil) until he achieved perfection, and now the dish is a hit on the menu.
Another typical fish from the region is the robust Pirarucú. I think even if you were to spend a week on the Amazon, you wouldn’t be able to taste Pirarucú as divine as Le Pre Catelan’s.
Speaking of travel to exotic places, a visit to the Amazon has always been on my wish list and many times during my stay in Brazil I have tried to make some plans to hop up. But for a budget traveler like myself, going there these days became too far, too pricey, too complicated. After tasting a series of delightful courses, I began to convince myself that maybe the best way to taste the Amazon may well be in Rio de Janeiro, at Le Pré Catelan, leaving me at least US$1,000 happier.
For those who hunger for the greatest hits of the jungle, you will want to order Chocolate and Coconut Cream Surprise served with Amazonian Fruit Sorbets like Açaí, Cupuaçú, and Taperebá. Forget that old thought that fruit should be eaten in its raw state. Here, fruit comes to life in its best shape and form in these amazing sorbet variations.
You can almost hear toucans and parrots singing to you while the cold, creamy, and silky sorbet melts in your mouth.
But Mr. Villard doesn’t stop there. He has also created a theme menu based on Rice and Beans, the backbone of Brazilian cuisine. Almost all carioca restaurants serve classic rice and beans, but none puts a whirl as exciting, creative, and sophisticated as Le Pré Catelan. Here, black and white looks really fancy!
Images of a kitchen meeting, chefs exchanging opinions deeply analyzing the dish comes to mind when you try the iconic Bahian black- eyed pea fritter—Acarajé pairing beautifully with foie gras. It was simply delicious.
Red Rice Chutney flavored with Passion Fruit Sauce puts the combination to the test and feels like a kitchen experiment, underlined with professional excellence.
Guinea Fowl Ballotine stuffed with Mushrooms, accompanied by a White and Black Bean Petit Gateau was an amazing explosion of imagination combined with technique—the flavor exquisitely balanced, the petit gateaux perfectly oozing black bean juices.
These two menus made me understand why Brazilian and French cuisine, the two in particular, marry each other so well. All around the city you can find new and trendy French spins on Brazilian cuisine, often times pushing creativity over the limit and becoming too much. The difference between cooking this kind of affair is knowing where the tipping point is, and stopping just shy of it. Mr. Villard does that expertly.
He is the only French man among seven other Brazilians in the kitchen. “The only thing missing in Brazilian cuisine is professionalism.” He added. “Brazilians have the talent, but they don’t have methodology. They don’t work with mise en place, and they don’t follow techniques. And that’s what I try to do with my team at Le Pré Catelan” explained Mr. Villard.
Mr. Villard couldn’t be better suited to capture the exotic ingredients of the Amazon, the classic combinations that are so typical of Brazilian habits, and the joyful spirit of Brazilian culture, and translate it all into cooking. He does that brilliantly, big time.
Le Pré Catelan
Av. Atlântica, 4240
Copacabana, Rio de Janeiro 22070
Tel (021) 2525-1160
Photo credits in this post go to Camilla Maia