Food-Safety Microscope on High-End Kitchens

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RIO DE JANEIRO -- Tucked on a leafy street in Leblon, the seaside bastion of this city's elite, Antiquarius ranks among Brazil's most exclusive restaurants. Well-heeled regulars frequent Antiquarius, which is decorated in faux-farmhouse style with landscape paintings and porcelain vases, and charges $68 for a stew of codfish in coconut-tomato sauce.

But while Antiquarius's prices have long shocked many people here, the restaurant is now gaining notoriety for another reason. Inspectors raided it this week, finding more than 50 pounds of expired food like ham, endive and beef tripe in its kitchen, including more than 10 pounds of snails with an expiration date of July 2012.

The inspection of Antiquarius, carried out on Tuesday in an operation code-named Ratatouille -- after both the Provençal stewed vegetable dish and the 2007 animated film about a kitchen rat with dreams of becoming a chef -- was one of several raids this year by officials seeking to improve the city's restaurant standards as more visitors flock to Rio ahead of the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics, both of which will be held here.

"Some restaurants think they will never be inspected, just because they are so chic and expensive," said Cidinha Campos, director of Rio's consumer protection agency, singling out an item on Antiquarius's menu, grilled slipper lobster in beurre d'escargots, which costs about $78. The restaurant's snail butter used in the recipe was also found to have expired, she said.

"Well," Ms. Campos said, "even Antiquarius is not above the law." She added that the restaurant, which serves dishes largely inspired by the cuisine of Portugal, Brazil's former colonial ruler, could face a fine from about $200 all the way up to $3 million, depending on its explanation of its kitchen practices and the size of its revenues.

Many people have welcomed the raids of Antiquarius and other restaurants in Rio, a city where visitors are often wowed by the natural beauty of beaches and forested peaks and entranced by the city's cultural offerings, like music and dance. But laments are common here about soaring restaurant prices and service that is somewhere between lackadaisical and dismissive.

In another surprise raid this year, inspectors found rotting fish and expired beef in the kitchen of the Copacabana Palace, the Art Deco gem on Copacabana Beach that is one of Rio's top hotels. Ms. Campos, the consumer protection official, said the hotel paid a fine of more than $100,000 and quickly enacted new food safety measures.

An array of other high-end spots here have also recently been found to have expired food in their kitchens, including Quadrifoglio, an Italian restaurant in the Jardim Botânico district where inspectors found expired tomatoes, pasta and ice cream. At Brigete's, a bistro in Leblon, the osso buco was deemed "unfit for consumption."

The food inspectors have also focused on cheaper restaurants, supermarkets and the kitchens found in Rio's love hotels, its famed short-stay establishments. Several of the hotels -- including Gallant, Panda, Bambina and Magnus -- had expired food, according to the consumer protection agency.

(In an exception to the trend, a few high-end restaurants raided by inspectors were found to have no expired food at all, including Gero, part of the Italian Fasano chain, and Zuka, which serves dishes like namorado fish in a foie gras broth.)

Pedro Mello, a spokesman for Antiquarius, which was founded in 1977 and is owned by the Portuguese restaurateur Carlos Perico, said in an interview that the expired food found by inspectors was "unjustifiable," and that snails (though not snail butter, which, its name notwithstanding, does not need to include snails at all, but involves butter, parsley, garlic and shallots) had been removed from the menu well before the raid.

"The Perico family itself eats lunch and dinner at Antiquarius, so you can imagine our sense of surprise," Mr. Mello said, adding that personnel responsible for the expired food were facing disciplinary action.

The raid is just one problem for Antiquarius, which is on the same block in Leblon where Sérgio Cabral, Rio's unpopular governor, lives.

Mr. Cabral has been besieged since June by protesters fuming about police brutality and abuses of power by the authorities, including the governor's extensive use of a fleet of helicopters to escape Rio's traffic jams. Some demonstrators remain camped not far from his doorstep and the entrance to Antiquarius, causing the restaurant's customer traffic to fall steeply at several points in recent weeks, said Mr. Mello, the restaurant's spokesman.

One Rio socialite, Narcisa Tamborindeguy, went so far as to tell a social columnist that Antiquarius was being "ripped off" because of its location on the governor's street. "Cabral should refund the restaurant because it's empty since the protests," said Ms. Tamborindeguy, who recently starred in a reality show called "Rich Women."

As for the protesters, they also expressed indignation about Mr. Cabral, who is grappling with polling in which half of those surveyed say he is doing a bad job, but they stopped far short of fretting about Antiquarius's fortunes.

"The city is full of these contrasts, these paradoxical things," said Ernesto Brito, 36, an ecologist camped among the protesters, some of whom were bathing less regularly than their new neighbors in Leblon. "We might be dirty in our skin, but they are dirty in their model," he said, gesturing at Antiquarius.

"We think there is a double standard; if someone came here and said, 'I got poisoned by them,' we'd go to jail for years," he continued, referring to himself and other scruffy protesters near Mr. Cabral's home. "They don't," he said, pointing again toward Antiquarius.

Taylor Barnes contributed reporting.

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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