Natal is a great place to indulge in regional (potiguar) specialties. Choose between hearty Sertanejo fare, such as sun-dried beef and roasted goat, and fresh fish and seafood dishes (lobster and shrimp are particularly abundant) from the coast.
A local institution, Peixada da Comadre (Rua Doutor José Augusto Bezerra de Medeiros 4, Praia dos Artistas, tel. 84/3202-3411, 11:30 a.m.–3:30 p.m. and 6:30–10 p.m. Wed.–Sat., 11:30 a.m.–5 p.m. Sun., R$18–26) has been serving up local fish and seafood specialties for almost 80 years. In her eighth decade, owner Dona Francisca presides over the kitchen, where the fresh catch of the day is transformed into traditional dishes such as the house peixada, chunks of fish swimming in a vegetable stew accompanied by rice and pirão. More recently, a second outlet opened in Ponta Negra (Av. Praia de Ponta Negra, tel. 84/3219-3016).
When migrants from Rio Grande do Norte’s interior get homesick, they head to Mangai (Av. Amintas Barros 3300, Lagoa Nova, tel. 84/3206-3344, www.mangai.com.br, 11 a.m.–10 p.m. daily, R$14–20). A ranch-style decor coupled with waiters sporting straw hats and leather sandals conspire to conjure up a slightly hokey version of a typical Sertanejo farm. However, what really satiates customers’ nostalgia is the banquet of regional specialties served at the vast buffet. Among the delicacies you’ll encounter are carne-de-sol na nata (sun-dried beef in cream), sovaco de cobra (shredded carne-de-sol cooked with corn and manioc flour), and gororoba (carne-de-sol with manioc and cheese).
If it sounds as if there’s a lot of carne-de-sol, rest assured that there is also a large choice of salads as well. There are also mouthwatering doces such as creamy cocada (a sweet coconut dessert) and cartola oba-oba (fried banana topped with Sertanejo cheese, caramelized sugar, cinnamon, and chocolate). Although it’s slightly off the beaten track, this restaurant is highly recommended as an appetizing introduction to the culinary traditions of the northeastern interior. It’s also worth skipping out on your hotel breakfast to indulge in the fabulous Sertanejo spreads served from 7 a.m. Tuesday–Sunday.
Agaricus (Av. Afonso Pena 529, Petrópolis, tel. 84/3211-4796, noon–3 p.m. and 6–11 p.m. Mon.–Fri., 9 p.m.–1 a.m. Sat., noon–4:30 p.m. Sun.) is the Latin term for a common mushroom (the Portuguese word is cogumelo). Those seeking an alternative to seafood and sun-dried beef won’t find a more unusual alternative than the contemporary dishes featuring fresh organic shiitakes and champignons (imported weekly from a farm in Rio Grande do Sul) served a this attractive restaurant. Start off with a mushroom carpaccio followed by a shrimp, fresh mushroom, and passion fruit risotto. Rest assured that there are plenty of non-mushroom items on the menu, among them desserts such as mango, passion fruit, and rum cheesecake.
Occupying a sprawling and stylishly modern adobe house with a privileged view of the sea, Camarões Potiguar (Rua Pedro da Fonseca Filho 8887, Ponta Negra, tel. 84/3209-2425, www.camaroes.com.br, 11:30 a.m.–3:30 p.m. and 6:30 p.m.–midnight daily, R$20–25) specializes in camarões (shrimp) cultivated at the restaurant’s own aquatic farms. Influences are both regional (camarão cajueiro stars shrimp topped with crushed cashews in a passion fruit sauce, accompanied by manioc gratinéed with coalho cheese) and international (camarão au gratin features shrimp cooked in a stew of white wine, Dijon mustard, hearts of palm and béchamel sauce with a gratin of gruyère). Both locals and foreigners flock here (which explains the translated menu). Leave room for dessert: The profiteroles pirangi (featuring a filling of cashew sorbet) are pretty sublime.
The succulent carne-de-sol served at Tábua de Carne (Av. Engenheiro Roberto Freire 3241, Ponta Negra, tel. 84/3642-11138, www.tabuadecarne.com.br, 11:30 a.m.–11:30 p.m. daily, R$20–30) hails from Picuí, a town in the neighboring state of Paraíba that is as famous for its sun-dried beef as Bordeaux is for fine wines. At this carnivore’s heaven, the carne-de-sol is made from filet mignon and comes accompanied with such fixings as green feijão, fried manioc, and pumpkin puree. A la carte portions serve three, but you can also choose the R$22 rodízio option, which includes various meats along with a buffet of regional dishes.
Piazzale Italia (Av. Deputado Antônio Florêncio de Queiroz 12, Rota do Sol, Ponta Negra, tel. 84/3236-2697, noon–3 p.m. and 6 p.m.–midnight daily, R$20–30) is considered the finest Italian restaurant in town by both Brazilian gourmets and visiting Italians in-the-know. The latter swear by the homemade grano duro pasta as well as imported ingredients such as skinless tomatoes, pine nuts, and porcini mushrooms. The thin-crust pizzas topped with everything from classic prosciutto to local fresh lobster are also highly appreciated. Located in a large house, the restaurant boasts various ambiances, but the most popular by far is the outdoor terrace with its scenic views.
Casa de Taipa (Rua Doutor Manoel Augusto Bezerra de Araújo 130-A, Alto de Ponta Negra, tel. 84/3219-5798, daily, R$5–12) is a delightfully laid-back hangout with a palm thatched roof, sandy floors, and adobe walls decorated with local art (for sale). The city’s premier tapiocaria serves up a delicious array of this Northeast version of a crêpe made with crunchy manioc flour. Classic versions are filled with melted coalho cheese or coconut milk, but there are more unorthodox fillings as well, such as fresh crab with basil, cheese, and sun-dried tomato. Coffee and drinks are also served, as is homemade ice cream to accompany the sweet tapiocas.
© Michael Sommers from Moon Brazil, 2nd Edition