Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo and Recife. What's amazing?
Recife and Salvador for sure -
Oficina de Sabor is great. Many dishes are served inside of a pumpkin.
Another great place in Recife is E - super contemporary restaurant.
In Salvador there is a restaurant that specializes in fish served with grilled tropical fruit grown in the garden behind the restaurant - Paraiso Tropical. You need a good taxi driver to get here and from the outside it looks like someone's house with a big wooden gate.
Also, in Salvador go to the best acaraje stands - everyone has an opinion on which is the best.
Thanks for the tips guys! It turns out that we're going to go to Salvador and Recife and probably driving form one to the other stopping in Aracaju on the way. We'll be going in April. I have some friends from Recife and between them and itaunas' recomendations our minds were made up. We're super excited to explore the Nordeste! Sitting on the beach and having food and drinks brought to me sounds like a blast!
São Paulo absolutely has the edge on the other two for variety of available cusines, inventiveness (look up mocotó here and on the web which is influenced by the cusine of Pernambuco -- the state Receife is in, sushi, Italian and other international cusines). That said its a large metropolis, so going "bairro hopping" all over the place to try different things requires the investment of a lot of time -- it makes the most sense to focus on a couple barrios (jardins, pinheiros, etc) and make a trip to mocoto. Rio has a lot of good options many of them more closely concentrated together, its got large hotels and the beach, great shopping centers. Both are melting pots with representative restaurants of all the cusines of the states of Brazil. In Rio you can head to Petropolis in the mountains which has a number of culinary options particularly if you want international cusines. In Receife which would be my personal choice you have more access to the traditional cuzine of Pernambuco which is immense and underappreciated, but there are contemporary restaurants like Oficina do Sabor in the historic district Olinda. All of these are major capital cities and even the smaller state capitals in Brazil (Vitoria for instance) are seeing a huge increase in fine dining destinations. I would say that it depends first on whether you want international cusines or just Brazilian. From there, do you want to try many, explore one unique cusine, what time of year are you visiting, what other things do you want to do. BTW after a number of years of high prices the entrance of Azul Linha Areas into the market has put downward pressures on airfares (although Azul, modeled on Jet Blue, seems to be consistently more expensive than Gol and TAM). So depending on the length of your stay, it could be possible to visit several cities such as Rio and Recife.