Thursday, April 27, 2006

Bizarre Brazilian

The restaurant is Fogo De Chao Churrascaria. It is located in the Buckhead section of Atlanta (there are other locations in the U.S. and Brazil). I dined there one evening last week while in town on business.

It wasn't my first choice. But the directions I had to my preferred dining spots were inaccurate. I decided to dine at Fogo De Chao out of desperation to eat. I had been driving around for about an hour (I expected 10 minutes), it was getting dark and I was really hungry.

The restaurant claims to serve "Brazilian Gaucho Cuisine". Call me ignorant but I thought gauchos were Argentinian cowboys roaming the Pampas. Apparently there are lots of gauchos in southern Brazil as well.

This is a restaurant for serious carnivores. The focus is grilled meats and about 15 of them are on offer. No you do not order a single dish, rather waiters dressed in Gaucho attire circulate the room with massive hunks of beef, lamb, pork or chicken on a steel sword-like spits. Each diner has a little chip on the table with one side colored green and the other red. Green signals to the waiter to stop and offer you a slab of protein. Red means you are taking a break.

Fogo De Chao also features a huge 'salad bar' in the center of the room. Once seated patrons are immediately invited to go to it and help themselves. It is groaning with food, mostly cold or room temperature. But all sorts of dishes. In addition to all the usual salad greens and fixings, there are a broad array of vegetables, as well as cold seafood, fruit, breads, soups, and cheeses.

With such a bounty, it was very hard not to overfill my plate. Having so much to choose from was extremely distracting as it was quite hard to focus on each item because they all melded together on the plate. I supposed I could have gone up to the salad bar for one thing at a time., but having completed a four-mile run not long before, I was in the mood to stay seated and limited myself to one slightly overstuffed plate.

As I was diving in, one of the servers brought out a basket of bread rolls filled with a mild cheese.

Once I finished my salad plate, another server brought out the accompaniments for the meats. Featured were mashed potatos with cheese, sauteed polenta squares, and fried bananas.

Here's my take on the meal - a nearly irresistable invitation to gluttony and indigestion. In my view, this place is a 1970's vintage steak and salad bar emporium dressed in Brazilian drag (or perhaps more appropriately gaucho bloomers).

There is just too much food here of inconsistent quality. Worst of all is the overall dining experience. You end up eating the equivalant of a 15 course meal way too fast. The room is huge and noisy which detracts further from the dining experience.

And it ain't cheap. The tab for this all-you-can-eat Brazilian buffet runs to about $60 per person not counting the beer and wonderful glass of Cousin-Macul Reserve that I downed with my hunks of meat.

In fairness to the restaurant, I can see the appeal of this place to the market it serves. It was packed to the gills with people, presumably those ubiquitous Americans that demand heapin helpins of food when they dine out. And their operating concept is probably a huge money maker. It is built around a buffet with nothing to order other than dessert, so I suspect the restaurant is far less complicated and costly to run than other mid-tier restaurants offering cooked-to-order cuisine. And it no doubt appeals to the American market - great slabs of meat arriving at the table like clockwork for Fred Flinstone and a huge salad bar for Wilma. Hell, there is even plenty to go round for Dino as well!

How appropriate - because from a gastronomic standpoint, this restaurant takes us back to the Stone Age.


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