Fogo de Chão

In the Brazilian all-you-can-eat meat palace, gauchos serve with gusto. The show is first-rate, the main course less satisfying.

Posted: April 08, 2007

'Aaah, yes," the waitress said reassuringly as men with long blades and skewered meats scurried back and forth beside our table. "Our gauchos are highly trained in Brazil for several years."

I was a tad confused at first when our waitress told us this at Fogo de Chão, the elegant new churrascaria near City Hall. Granted, it must require a certain amount of practiced delicacy to navigate a bustling steakhouse with sword-length knives and heavy skewers laden with roasted, drippy meats.

But as far as I could tell, the only real challenge here appeared to be honing the catlike reflexes with which they pounced upon tables when diners flipped their disks from red (meaning: "Wait a minute, I'm still chewing!") to green (meaning: "Yo! Bring on the meat!")

Perhaps it was just the way our waitress said it. But I suddenly imagined a secret compound outside São Paulo where young gauchos trained with ninjalike intensity to sharpen their reflexes, sprinting forward in billowy bombacha pants and then stopping on a centavo every time the master gaucho raised a colored flag.

Obviously, digesting the unlimited supply of 15 different cuts of meat being sliced upon my plate that night (which I'm sure far exceeded Fogo's modest average of 11/2 pounds per guest) was starting to strain the brain. Filling up on those addictive cheese popovers and Fogo's immensely colorful (but somewhat tasteless) salad buffet didn't help. But I found myself flipping the colored disks and timing the meat deliveries as if they were an Olympic event.

It took 90 seconds for my first taste of picanha, the half-moon roll of sirloin that is the pride of any churrascaria. Sliced directly to my plate, the outer side was roasted a deep, salt-crusted brown from the heat, the interior side pooled with sweet pink juice that had a vaguely metallic aftertaste.

The bottom sirloin, an earthy, skirtlike cut that was sliced across the grain like brisket, took a mere 20 seconds. A fat-basted cut of yummy top sirloin was on my plate just 12 seconds later.

I waited a whole 85 seconds for some of the little lamb chops, though they had withered to an overcooked, underseasoned gray long before they arrived. I could have passed altogether on the overcooked and livery filet mignon, not to mention the bland sausages, which had a sponginess that reminded me of Bob Evans.

But then one gaucho, having already passed my table when I sneakily flipped the card to green, did an impressive pirouette to offer us cubes of chicken wrapped in crispy bacon. Now that was charming.

And the unfailing charm of those gauchos, who slice their meats with tableside theatricality in an elegant room that few local restaurants can match, is ultimately what saves this newcomer from falling back into the one-bell fire.

Fogo de Chão (which means "Fire of the Ground" or "Campfire") has a number of flaws - including a gas grill that gives its meats noticeably less flavor than traditional charcoal flames.

But the fun factor here is undeniable, and it is definitely worth a visit. I'd choose lunch if given a choice, as it is nearly half the price of dinner ($24.50 compared with $44.50) for the same selection of all-you-can eat meats and salad bar. Though with pounds of beef in your belly, you'd best plan a midday nap instead of going back to work.

Whatever time you come, Fogo's big dining room is a stunner, transformed by DAS Architects from the old J.E. Caldwell jewelry store in an artful way that has preserved a rare feeling of old Philadelphia grandeur. Huge chandeliers still hang from the towering ceilings, which are trimmed with the original, ornately carved wood molding. The walls are fitted with nearly 5,000 bottles of wine, much of it behind glass, that give more than a hint of the luxuries this space offers now.

The cellar has more than 300 labels, including classic high-end names like Opus One, Gaja Sori and Chateau Latour. But there is also a nice selection of South American wines that offer great value and a perfect, lusty match to the grilled meats. On the affordable side, try an Argentine malbec from Trapiche ($48) or Terrazas ($58). On the higher end ($100-plus), try a Chilean powerhouse from Montes, Sena, Concha Y Toro or Errazuriz.

With so much attention to wine, I was disappointed by the total lack of choices in cachaça. The fiery sugarcane spirit is at the soul of Brazil's national cocktail, the caipirinha, but Fogo's bartender had a curious brogue and such a heavy hand that my drink tasted like lime-flavored rocket fuel.

Details like a clumsy caipirinha can detract from the credibility of a place - even a chain like Fogo that has four restaurants in Brazil.

Then again, if authentically home-cooked flavors are their priority, adventure eaters will fare better at Picanha, a relatively modest diner-turned-churrascaria that serves Northeast Philadelphia's growing Brazilian population. This casual BYO has plastic table covers, TVs playing Brazilian soap operas, taxidermy and trinkets for decor. But the meats coming off its charcoal-fired grill recently were consistently superior in taste and tenderness to what I'd just eaten at Fogo de Chão.

One of Fogo's main issues, it turns out, is that its gauchos do considerably more than jump at green disks and slice meat. In fact, these fellows actually cook the meat themselves, bopping back and forth between the dining room and kitchen to tend their skewers. And with essentially 12 different cooks at work each night, the preparations are maddeningly inconsistent, ranging from blandly underseasoned to blazingly oversalted. Some meats are cooked with relative delicacy. Others, like the ribs and lamb chops, are cooked to chewy jerky.

Fogo de Chão gets by on the sum of its experience, not the delicacy of its individual parts. But with a little more gaucho camp tucked in those bombachas, it could become even more than meats the eye.


Contact restaurant critic Craig LaBan at 215-854-2682 or claban@phillynews.com.

Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/craiglaban.

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