Thursday, April 9, 2009

Fogo de Chão, Santo Amaro, SP, Brazil

A composite review of many visits, more of a commentary on a type of restaurant. This is a top of the line chain of Brazilian style churrascarias, or barbecue places. Quite different from any other style of barbecue. This particular enterprise is my personal favourite for this style of restaurant. The style is called "espeto corrido", roughly "running skewer" The deal is that you pay one fixed price, all you can eat. Drinks and desserts are extra. Every type of salad imaginable is available, so there are options for vegetarians and even vegans.Some of these churrascarias have sushi available, but I can't imagine why anyone would come here for sushi. It is made beforehand, and is sure to be a couple of hours old by the time you get to it.I would not advise a strict vegan to eat here, it is a bloody business.

When you pull up to the front door, the first thing that hits you is the array of whole racks of beef ribs grilling slowly around a hardwood fire on the floor. This grilling setup is enclosed by glass, so that the smoke does not bother anyone. Everything else is cooked on gas-fired grills in the back. Fogo de Chão means "Fire on the floor" Pronounced "Fawgu dee shong" (swallow the g), and it the traditional gaúcho way of barbecueing.

A nicely dressed young lady, will show you to your table. White tablecloths and proper cutlery are provided, not the bendy type you sometimes find in Brazilian restaurants. 

The servers are dressed in gaúcho getups, with bombachas (pleated trousers with buttoned cuffs), wide belts and slippers, yes slippers, long-sleeved shirts and red scarves (a red scarf is a gaucho trademark). They are quite happy to explain what all the paraphernalia on the belts are for. 

The service works like this: You visit the salad bar, order side dishes, then the array of meats start arriving. Most of the cuts here are Brazilian (similar to French) and arrive on a large skewer, to be sliced off onto your plate. The waiters are quite skilled in manipulating the tip of the skewer on a small saucer, so that no juices fall onto the tablecloth or your clothes. You have to assist by using a small pair of provided tongs or your fork to catch the slices as they come off the skewer. The large knives they wield are very sharp, and they are careful with them, tips always pointing down, except when cutting.  Ribs and several other cuts not suitable for skewering are brought to tableside on a carving board, much the same as in a carvery.(Do those still exist?) Several side dishes will be brought to the table at the same time: fried bananas, farofa (toasted manioc flour), which I call sawdust, manioc fries, fried potatoes, delicious hot pão de queijo (cheese bread), fried polenta and so on. And they just keep coming until eventually you holler uncle. You are provided with a small disk, red on one side and green on the other. The idea is that when you want a break, you turn the disk red side up, but this is usually ignored by the wait staff, don't know why they bother to have these.

One of the big differences between meat in Brazil and Argentina is that the Brazilan beef is not aged. It is cooked fresh, and seasoned only with salt (a liberal coating, removed after cooking) The picanha has a superb mineral taste and is best on the rare side of medium. Thin slices across the grain are the way to go, it can be quite chewy.

The cuts I recommend are picanha (tip of the rump, sometimes called tri-tip steak, seen in the photo), fraldinha (skirt steak), lamb chops (my friend John Muir goes just for the lamb chops and was last seen finishing his 18th chop, that's all he eats there), cupim (the hump of Nelore cattle) and beef ribs. Many others are available. If you don't speak Portuguese, some of the servers now speak English, which was not possible just a few years ago.

Many people start with a Caipirinha, but better to go straight to the wine. the cachaça will numb your palate.You need a fairly bold wine to go with this. They have a house brand available, but forget it. I recommend a Luigi Bosca Reserva Malbec. This is a jammy, tobaccoey, peppery Argentinean, long in tannins and perfect with meat. Unfortunately Brazilian wines (with very rare exceptions) are deplorable. Don't think of going for french wines,even mediocre ones; the price will knock you off your seat. $200 for an undistinguished red Burgundy - high import duties and price gouging is the reason. Anyway, better to drink wine from the same hemisphere, no?

Must-have desserts are the Creme de Papaya (pawpaw whipped with vanilla ice cream topped with Creme de Cassis) or Creme de Abacate (avocado whipped with vanilla ice cream and topped with Kirschwasser)

The staff are superbly trained, polite and attentive. These places can have a high volume level, the only disadvantage. Eating at a churrascaria is essential for anyone visiting Brazil, as long as they are not vegan, but would a vegan be reading these pages? Despite being a chain, the quality is probably the best in Brazil, certainly the best I have been to. The bill for 4 with 2 bottle of good Argie wine and desserts all round should be around $350, which is R$800 in local currency (Reais) Remember it is "all you can eat", a bargain.

There are 6 locations in Brazil, and branches in Atlanta Austin, Baltimore, Beverly Hills, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Indianapolis, Miami, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, Scottsdale, Washington and Kansas City. i would guess that the exported versions are slightly localised


Stepan W. Baghdassarian said...

Nice description of the Churrasco experience, however I disagree with your assessment of Brazilian wines. Brazil is making very good wines, including the PIZZATO Wines from Vale dos Vinhedos, State of Rio Grande do Sul. We are the importers of the PIZZATO Wines in the U.S. and they are doing very well.

Slimseun said...

Stepan, hope you check back here as I can't email you. I have only experienced one of the good Brazilian wines - Navarro Correia, a Cabernet Sauvignon, also from Rio Grande state. The Pizzato wines are new to me, but am familiar with the local Almaden and Miolo wines. Can it be that the good ones are only for export? What the varietals they use to produce their wines?