FOGO DE CHÃO
So says the person in our party who used to live in Brazil when we take our seats at Fogo de Chão. She looks stern, concerned. She knows what’s coming. And she’s completely right.
Fogo de Chão is a Brazilian steakhouse where you eat as much as you want for a fixed price. It’s a churrascaria, meaning servers bombard you with meat still on the roasting skewers, carve it for you tableside, and then make room for someone else shuttling yet another fillet of something. It’s dim sum for the hardcore carnivore.
With a location that opened in early November in Copley Square, Boston is Fogo de Chão’s latest and 19th US outpost of this popular franchise that started in Porto Alegre in southern Brazil in 1979. It’s easy to overdo it here; you’re encouraged to, in fact. A restaurant like this raises salient points about how we eat, namely the age-old question of how much is enough. It turns out Americans aren’t the only ones prone to overeat.
This is the kind of place where you can easily make a meal of the salad bar, and yet 16 cuts – of beef, lamb, pork, chicken — arrive like clockwork until you wave the white flag of mercy. Or, in this case, until you flip over the card at your seat that indicates you’re done. The meat is the draw here, and rightly so. Gauchos, the men slicing it for you, offer it at different temperatures right on the same skewer. The sirloin, both the top and bottom cuts, are succulent and flavorful, as is the lamb chop, if a tad salty. Only the medallion preparations – including chicken breast and legs wrapped in bacon and pork dusted in Parmesan – are disappointing, too dry by the time they get to our table.
Pity the poor vegetarian who steps into Fogo de Chão. Or should you? A friend who will eat fish if necessary – there’s none here – gamely joins us one evening to see what he can order. Surprisingly a lot, he’s happy to report, but with a caveat: “You really have to be secure in your vegetarianism to eat here,” he says, referring to the parade of juicy meat dangling inches from his face.
The salad bar, like the space, is sprawling. On both visits I count nearly 50 items. It’s more of a smorgasbord lined with cold cuts, various cheeses, peppers, smoked salmon, fat asparagus stalks, lettuces, mozzarella, bread, mushrooms. Next to it is a hot station with the ingredients for making farofa, the traditional Brazilian dish of rice, black beans, and a manioc flour mixture. (Make sure you get all three and mix them up; otherwise you’ll think you’re eating sawdust.)
For the fussy and finicky, Fogo de Chão will pose a challenge. You get a brief introduction about how the experience will unfold, but after that you’re on your own. Nothing on the salad bar is labeled. We suspect that would make a salad bar that costs $22.50 per person cheapen the thrill and make it feel like a standard all-you-can-eat buffet. A server explains it differently: “I think that’s so that you’ll talk to us,” he says.
Sure, you can figure out most of the items, but occasionally there’s a dish that looks like tuna (it’s actually chicken). And if you have a food or nut allergy, you won’t know what’s OK unless you speak with one of the attendants who are constantly replenishing items.
The service, it should be noted, is uniformly excellent. A small army of waitstaff and gauchos roam freely, quick to take a drink order or expound on the different types of meat. “We work as a team,” we hear more than once. They also replenish the side dishes that come with the meal, from little trays of crispy polenta and plump caramelized bananas to a basket of pão de queijo (cheese bread that has the airy texture of a popover) and garlic mashed potatoes that, on both visits, are nearly inedible from a heavy hand with the salt. An additional order of fried yuca is bland without a sauce of some sort.
Four desserts are made in-house, and they’re the ones you should try. A Brazilian-style flan is denser and creamier than its Mexican or Spanish counterparts, but the real attraction is also the simplest one. A papaya cream – the fruit blended with vanilla ice cream — is light, almost with a mousse-like consistency and just a tinge of sweetness. It’s the perfect coda to a meal that will likely leave you woozy when you stand up.
The food quickly piles up at Fogo de Chão, and if your eyes are bigger than your stomach, it’s sad to see it go to waste at the end of the meal. Since it’s a buffett, you’re not allowed to take anything to go, although a few have tried, our sassy waitress tells us with an eye-roll.
You can blow through a lot of cash here, too. On our first visit, midway into the meal, a cheerful young man stops by, rolling a cart of high-end liquors. “What would you like?” he asks, fully expecting us to buy a round on the spot. We decline. “Some shots?” he persists until it was clear we were fine with our caipirinhas, Brazil’s version of a margarita except made with sugar, limes, and cachaça. You can order 12 varieties here, but most of the flavored concoctions are too sweet. The traditional type will suffice fine.
When the bill tops $350 for four people (including tip and some drinks), you suddenly realize that Fogo de Chão is meant to be a special-occasion dining experience. Except it doesn’t feel that special. The dining room, at 12,000 square feet, has the look and ambience of a corporate banquet hall, right down to the earth tones, carpeting, muted music, and neutral lighting.
Then again, who has time to notice all that when the 10th skewer of meat arrives. Pace yourself.James Reed can be reached at email@example.com.