Junior Borges, chef of Meridian in Dallas, has won a following from his customers for his fine-dining Brazilian cuisine, and he recently also got the attention of the James Beard Foundation’s awards committee, which named him to the list of semifinalists for the coveted Outstanding Chef award.
"It's an honor, it's a nice feeling to be recognized since I have been doing it for so long," Borges said, adding that it’s unusual for the food of his home country to be acknowledged in this way. "I think it's a cuisine that's not well understood for a lot of people."
Borges says Meridian is the first modern Brazilian restaurant in Texas. Although people are familiar with the all-you-can-eat churrascaria concepts that dot the country, where servers often dressed as gauchos, or South American cowboys, walk around carving off chunks of sizzling meat onto diners' plates, Brazil has much more to offer than that he said.
It’s a vast country with many intermingling cultures: It hosts the fourth largest Italian population outside of Italy, the largest African population outside of Africa, and the largest Japanese population outside of Japan. And of course, the Portuguese culture influences not just the language, but the food as well.
"It's the kind of cuisine that’s still untapped. It's so unique: You can't just go to any restaurant and have moqueca," he said, referring to the Brazilian seafood stew.
A lot of Borges's family comes from Bahia, the epicenter of Afro-Brazilian culture in the country. Melding his own upbringing with world-wide flavors and Texas ingredients has helped Borges create dishes such as blue prawn moqueca, gnocchi made with yucca and laced with Périgord truffle, farofa with Calabrese sausage, and tapioca-cheese fritters with Benton's country ham. It's a true meshing of local and global influences, all done in a fine-dining setting.
Meridian also consistently has beach cheese, a savory-sweet snack inspired by the grilled-cheese-on-a-stick found on the beaches in Brazil, available as a $7 add on. Borges drizzles his version with lime juice, brushes it with hot honey and sprinkles it with oregano from the restaurant garden.
"I wanted to showcase my country and my experiences, and present these things that are so meaningful to me but still relatable to the guest," said Borges. "Overall it's been surprisingly well received, even if at the beginning I had a little apprehension if people were going to understand this menu."
When Meridian opened in 2021, it didn't start out as the prix-fixe-menu-only spot that it is now. He just changed the format last December as a way not only to create more of an experience for the diner, but to make sure some of his more unique dishes made it to the table while reducing food waste. Currently the four-course menu runs $73 per person, with an elaborate bread service at the beginning and a $40 optional drink pairing. Each course comes with three or four options to choose from, with extras such as caviar and Texas wagyu beef costing more ($54 and $35, respectively).
"I wanted to focus, reduce waste, and streamline things to make the kitchen more efficient, and get the cooks and team to execute something they don't execute every day," said the chef. "I think it was exciting to see we could do a restaurant that allows people to come and have a different experience and food, but still offer the hospitality and service and execution [of a fine-dining restaurant]."
Borges said the change has resulted in better food cost and streamlined operations. It’s not that the work is easier, he said, but it's more precise and the team is able to do create dishes with better intent.
"Culturally, it's easy to say [the restaurant] is chef-driven, but everything I do is possible because of my team," said Borges. "I can't cook and do all this stuff by myself; it's about engaging people and pushing them in the right way, and then I try and award hard work, perseverance, talent, and loyalty."
Meridian isn't Borges's first foray into managing a kitchen and staff. He came to Texas in 2014 to open the celebrated sushi restaurant Uchi in Dallas. Before that, the chef cooked in New York City, where he had immigrated to from Brazil as a fresh 20-something at the end of 2001. At the time, cooking hadn't been his goal. In fact, he hadn't ever worked in a kitchen when he arrived. But he picked up English, and acquired a lot of food knowledge, by watching cooking shows and browsing the cookbook section of the Barnes & Noble bookstore in Union Square in Manhattan.
More than 20 years later, Borges has found his footing in the culinary world, as seen by the success of Meridian.
"The food is presented in a way that's approachable enough that people aren't put off, and it allows us to present these flavors and textures that are a little different," said the chef. "It's been pretty well received, and I just hope there is an opportunity for more Brazilian restaurants and modern Brazilian interpretations [of the cuisine] to open up."
While the prix-fixe menu gives diners a real sense of the chef's cuisine, guests of Meridian can also take a more casual approach at the bar and lounge area. Here an à la carte menu is still available, and most items listed can only be sampled there. That menu includes the signature kohlrabi Caesar salad ($15), wood-fired chicken with piri piri sauce, ($36) and the x-tudo burger ($17) made with local wagyu beef and topped with gruyere cheese, maitake aïoli, shallot marmalade, and malagueta pickles.
The menu changes a lot based on the season, but one thing remains the same: The dedication to the flavors of Brazil done in a smart, unique, and upscale way that may, as it turns out, win the chef the country’s biggest industry award.