Red is supposed to mean stop, but whether the token chip beside my plate at Fogo de Chão is turned to red or green, it doesn't seem to matter. The meat still keeps coming. It's a slow night, probably one of the few ever, at this luxe churrascaria, newly arrived in Beverly Hills via Brazil. It has been serving up to 400 famished Angelenos a night since it opened in mid-March, and the servers have a lot of meat to unload.
Dressed like gauchos in billowy pants and white shirts tucked into wide leather belts, they circle the two sizable dining rooms against a backdrop of murals depicting gaucho life on the Rio Grande do Sul in southern Brazil. Here they come, each carefully bearing a sword-like skewer threaded with a different cut, mostly beef grilled over a hardwood charcoal. Would you like some filet mignon, asks one, who seems genuinely disappointed when only two of us take him up on it. Rare? Medium rare? What do you like? He turns the skewer and, wielding a fierce-looking knife, deftly carves off a rosy piece of beef. Just before it falls, I take the slice from him with a pair of silver tongs as gracefully as Ginger Rogers twirled in Fred Astaire's arms. The filet is tender and juicy, tasting of salt and smoke at the edge. There definitely is something to this charcoal.
Fogo de Chão is, hands down, the best of the churrascaria genre I've ever encountered, short of the real thing — beef grilled over wood out in the countryside. The name (pronounced FOE-go-deh-shau) means "fire on the ground." Fogo de Chão started out in Porto Alegre, known as Brazil's churrascaria capital, in 1979 when four former waiters pooled their money to open their first churrascaria. They have a winning formula, obviously, because they now have branches in Dallas, Houston, Atlanta and Chicago, as well as three in Brazil. Some of them gross millions of dollars a year.
Meat, meat everywhere
We've had time to take one bite of the filet when another urban gaucho passes by the table, this one plying massive beef ribs just like the ones turning over the coals in the window for everyone driving by on La Cienega Boulevard to see. It's brilliant, really. Drivers trapped in traffic to or from the 10 will obsess on those ribs and that scent of wood smoke wafting over the parking lot. Sooner or later (and quite probably sooner) they'll point their cars back to Fogo de Chão. And the red meat will be waiting.
Those ribs are every bit as meaty as they look, shaggy and gnarled, sending our inner cavemen into raptures. Next up are baby lamb chops, just morsels really, cooked to a rose-petal pink. Then come moist chicken thighs wrapped in bacon, alcatra (top sirloin), fraldinha (bottom sirloin) and baby leg of lamb. Costela de porco (pork ribs) give you plenty to chew on.
Oh, the meat you can eat. Actually, all the meat you can eat, some 15 varieties. I wasn't crazy about the linguica sausage, and the leg of lamb was just OK. But most are satisfying, expertly cooked. The best, though, has to be the picanha, which is rump roast seasoned with sea salt. You can recognize it, hunks of beef the size and shape of a half cantaloupe butted up against each other to cover the entire length of the sword. It's beefy and highly seasoned with salt.
But before meat comes the buffet. And as soon as you sit down, baskets of fragrant, warm cheese breads. They're a little like biscuits, but airier, tucked under a linen napkin. A friend who is just back from Brazil thoroughly approves of the pao de queijo, popping them one after another into his mouth. In Brazil, he tells me, he had these every afternoon, warm from the oven. It's hard to stay away from them. And no one wants you to. As soon as the diminutive breads begin to cool off, or just as you're getting to the bottom of the basket, a server sets down another batch.
But wait. The buffet calls and its allure is mighty. Just look at the array. This is no cheesy salad bar, but an artful still life of top-notch ingredients. I've never seen hearts of palm in foot-long segments before. Blue lake beans are bright emerald. There are beautiful lettuces, thick slices of beefsteak tomatoes, giant asparagus spears, bowls of bocconcini, artichoke hearts, roasted sweet peppers, et cetera, et cetera. And on the far side, a selection of dressings, or if you prefer, your choice of extra virgin olive oils and various vinegars. Pink slices of prosciutto, rustic salame, a smoked salmon beckon too.
This is the perfect restaurant for Type A personalities; they can be in and out in under an hour. Nothing is prepared to order, so there's no lag time. Everything is available all the time. The kitchen just keeps grilling, and the food just keeps coming.
At Fogo de Chão, the experienced keep themselves on a tight leash — that is, just one pass around the buffet. That's the sole strategy for making it to the end of the meal, not to mention those cuts of beef that lured you inside in the first place. Absolutely no seconds.
There's a guy in New York, my Manhattan-Brazil friend tells me confidentially, who trains for the hot dog eating competition at churrascarias in that city. He can eat so much at one sitting that the fellow is barred from those in Manhattan and has to go to Brooklyn or Queens to train. Imagine a guy like that let loose in here.
It boggles the mind.
I'd let him practice on my side dishes. None of them are all that compelling anyway, just starch, as in fried polenta, fried whole bananas and gluey mashed potatoes showered with scallion.
At your service
The setting is handsome enough, though it has some of the same overblown aesthetic as a Las Vegas restaurant. Fortunately, the owners have restrained from tricking up the concept with the cheesy Brazilian dancers that spice up some other examples of the genre.
They've also given service the right touch. Waiters will tell you when you sit down that they're all part of a team. Ask anyone anytime for anything you need. How refreshing. And they are very diligent, refilling glasses, replenishing sides, clearing away plates and giving you fresh ones.
The wine list roams through California, Spain, Chile and Argentina, but offers some of the dullest choices to be found in those parts. And to add insult to injury, markups are prohibitively high, which seems at odds with Fogo de Chão's other sensible policies.
I'd go with the caipirinha, the drink made from the Brazilian sugar-cane rum called cachaça. Think of it as something akin to the Calvados the French call trou Normande. Taken mid-meal, the fiery spirit is supposed to create a "hole," clearing room so you can eat even more. You'll need the room. I had never seen one of my guests, a notorious trencherman, ever flag. He's capable of eating so much, his sometime nickname is "Hoover." But he's met his match in Fogo de Chão.
Like most churrascarias, it's all you can eat for one price. Here, it's $48.50 per person, which, considering the quality of the buffet and the meats, is a very good deal. Kids 5 and younger eat for free, kids 6 to 10 are half price, and vegetarians can stop at the buffet for $22 per person.
By the time the waiters come around to ask if you'd like dessert, the answer that comes to mind is, you've got to be kidding. They're not. But if you want to try something, go for the papaya cream, which is purportedly a digestive, though I wouldn't suggest a blend of papaya and heavy cream as the topper for a meal like this.
You decide. And get back to me, if you can.