April 17th, 2015


Copacabana Beach with sushi

By daylight we could go out on to the terrace and look east across Copacabana Beach and west up what I imagine to be Morro dos Cabritos mountain with a favela (or slum) at its foot. We went out of our air-conditioned apartment into the warmth of the city and the white sandy beach. We crossed the divided road along the ocean front and walked along the promenade watching the other strollers, the beach frolickers, vendors and the permanent kiosks that line the edge of the sand. We stopped at a beach cafe and drank bottled water from glasses that were soon dew-frosted in the humid air. As we sat relaxing, there was a continual flow of vendors and musicians. Peanut vendors would tip a few nuts onto small slips of paper that were whisked away if we did not eat any to indicate that we wished to buy. We were offered hats, sunglasses, towels, and clothes. When, as part of this relentless stream, a smiling man tried to thrust a green brochure upon us I tried to wave him away like all the rest. W, however, was intrigued and took the pamphlet. It was for a tourism agency based just a block away from our apartment. Rio Maximo offered local tours, activities, currency exchange and airport transfers. They claimed to speak English, Portugese, and Spanish; and their pricing seemed fair. We had been wondering what to do with our big bags in the twelve hours between leaving the apartment and the departure of our flight on Monday. With a return journey to the airport costing almost £40 in taxi fares, it no longer seemed feasible to dump our bags at left luggage while returning to the city for the day. Perhaps, W speculated, the agency would look after our bags if we spent the day on one of their tours. Changing some dollars with them would give us a feel for our level of comfort with them.

We finished our drinks and returned to the apartment to collect some dollars before visiting the agency office. Antonio, the brochure distributor, was sitting on one of the visitors' chairs near the door. It was clear that he remembered us (perhaps we were his only success). He greeted us warmly and, after an amicable chat, directed us to his colleague Daniel, who was the only member of staff not wearing a bright uniform shirt. Daniel spoke English comfortably, pointed out a reasonable exchange rate listed on a whiteboard, and was entirely happy to store our bags while we took one of their tours. We accepted the published cash price (about £8 below the published credit card price) and enquired about the cost of an airport transfer after the tour. Their fixed tariff was also published at about £30 so we booked a car too. We handed over enough dollars to cover our bookings and leave us a couple of days of spending money. Our sightseeing plans were made and we could now forget any further research. And the reason for Daniel's unofficial shirt: he had forgotten his uniform that morning.

It was late for breakfast. We chose to seek an early lunch. W wanted sushi but in the lift down to the street a resident engaged us in conversation. Portugese-born, she had come to Rio as a child and remained for some fifty years. We asked her about grill restaurants and she took us to the street corner, pointed out one recommendation and started to lead us into another. We explained that we needed the information for later, thanked her (in Portugese), and said goodbye.

We had seen several sushi outlets from our taxi ride. It was time to find the nearest. And the nearest was Umê Sushi on Avenida Nossa Senhora de Copacabana, the long street that runs parallel to the beach just a block back from the strand. A small Japanese woman slid open the door when we approached. She showed us through a small shop to a small restaurant at one side. We were seated beside the kitchen and I was delighted to watch the itamae and his assistant preparing the food from piles of fresh fish. A placid young man gave us a menu in English from which we chose edamame and a substantial mixed platter. The drinks were stored in an open refrigerated unit in the shop and there was no premium for consuming them on site instead of taking them away. The Japanese beers were significantly more expensive than local lagers but the prices were comparable to London. I ordered a Kirin Ichiban and was only mildly surprised to see that it was brewed in São Paulo because I knew that Kirin is multinational.

The sushi and sashimi were really good. I had heard that Brazil has a huge Japanese population but I had not really considered the implication this has for the quality of its Japanese cuisine. The consequence is delightful and I also enjoyed the varied Japanese stock of the attached shop: not just foodstuffs but housewares, manga, books, and action figures.

Next door to Umê Sushi stood Rio in Box, a stylish souvenir shop with every item displayed in its own distinct space. Remarkably, this apparently luxurious approach was not reflected in the pricing and we found a full range of price points. I bought two small zipped pouches in the Copacabana mosaic design and a commonplace Rio de Janeiro carabinier key ring as a simple memento.

On the same street as our apartment were cheap local bars, independent diners and a grocery. None of these were serving the tourist trade. From the grocery we bought bananas. I had intended to spend the afternoon reading and writing but, instead, I fell fast asleep. When I awoke, W explained that we had already exhausted our local currency. We returned to Rio Maximo where Daniel was now wearing a uniform shirt.

With our new wealth we went to another beachside kiosk for caipirinhas and grilled prawns. This was just an appetiser for the main event: a 'por kilo' buffet where you pay by weight (with a higher rate for desserts). Our Portugese neighbour had recommended the Expresso Grill on Avenida Nossa Senhora de Copacabana. It was a long narrow room stretching back from the street to a central buffet station at the back near a counter. At one end of the counter stood a woman in front of two electronic scales; at the other was a big grill. It lacked glamour but the food looked appealing. We served ourselves from the varied buffet and put our filled plates on the scales, which printed a price sticker that the assistant attached to the single sheet that we had each received upon entry. The savoury buffet dishes and the grilled meats were all at one price so the grill cook slapped whatever we requested onto the large plates before we took our meals to be weighed. Drinks were served by a waiter who marked them off in preprinted boxes on our sheets. Desserts were put on smaller plates that went on the other set of scales. The food was cheap and tasty but the quality of the more costly items was reduced to accommodate the pricing. We could see why these places were so popular.