I had a pretty good idea what a churrascaria was all about before I could even pronounce the word, and if you've flown on an airline lately you might know what it is too.
There's a growing number of national chains specializing in this Brazilian style of institutionalized gluttony, and just about every in-flight magazine these days contains their ads, invariably featuring some combination of glistening beef, metal skewers and open flame. Fire of Brazil, part of a small Atlanta-based churrascaria chain, landed in the French Quarter earlier this year and opened in the former location of La Louisiane restaurant.
The restaurant brought with it the standard churrascaria playbook, which is heavily formulaic but sticks close to the original source material back in Brazil. Brazilian cities abound with such restaurants and churrasco is as essential to the national cuisine as barbecue is to Texas. In fact, while these places are sometimes called Brazilian steakhouses, it's helpful to think of them more as barbecue restaurants than anything like a Ruth's Chris franchise. Despite fine dining trappings like a wine list and tuxedoed managers, the main draw is always the array of meats offered and the unbridled quantity at which they can be consumed.
All this is delivered in a service style called rodizio, which translates both in Brazil and here as a prix fixe, all-you-can-eat parade of meats which are brought to your table on the rotisserie spikes on which they were roasted and sliced directly onto your plate.
Fire of Brazil waiters are styled as gauchos, or Brazilian cowboys, and the required get-up includes puffy pants stuffed into black riding boots, kerchiefs at their necks and short swords to cut slices from the various chunks, roasts and loins of meat they escort around the dining room. In addition to the normal utensils, diners are given tongs to assist in the tableside carving and a signal card to display green-side up to summon more gauchos or to flip over to the red side to request a breather. As long as they see green, the gauchos keep coming.
Whether or not you find the $40 price reasonable will probably hinge on how high you value novelty, entertainment and pure volume of food compared to refinement and consistency, which are not exactly hallmarks of Fire of Brazil.
There is no quibbling with variety on offer here. During one dinner, I sampled no fewer than 14 types of beef, pork, chicken, turkey and lamb, and on subsequent visits I lost count but definitely saw items I hadn't tried before.
The most consistent choice is round steak, curled into a rainbow shape on the skewer and introduced tableside as the house special. There also is pleasantly chewy skirt steak, rump roast, chunks of filet completely turbaned in white, fatty bacon, great skewered haunches of top sirloin and beef nuggets topped with fat like thick derby caps. One of the best selections was lamb, cut in broad slices, glistening with red juice in the center and charred at the edges from the flame.
The biggest problem with many of the meats is a bias toward intense saltiness. After eating quite a bit of meat like this, which is the whole point of a visit, you might feel as though you've been brined. Others object to the charred exterior slices of meat sometimes encountered here, but the gauchos have a lot of meat to work with on each skewer and you can often select your desired level of doneness by pointing your tongs at a particular patch of flesh.
There's no such control over some other meat selections, and they can be a crapshoot depending on the batch. One skewer of bacon-wrapped chicken chunks came off the spike piping hot, tender and delicious and another load was badly overcooked. The whole chicken thighs were always very flavorful, though the parmesan-dusted pork loin was always dry. The turkey breast was shockingly salty, but at least still moist and crisp-skinned. One assortment of pork ribs, cut along the bone, was juicy and good while another, cut across the bone, was as tough as jerky and barely edible. Plump little pork sausages were slightly spicy and flavored with herbs like Italian links. One of the best things the gauchos bring around is a whole, peeled pineapple dusted with cinnamon and brown sugar and roasted on the spit for a sweet, smoky palate cleanser.
The salad bar buffet included in the price is okay by salad bar buffet standards, which means trouble by just about any other standard. Some highlights are palm heart salads, mango slices and all the blue cheese cubes you could want. But then you can practically taste the can on other vegetables. You can't taste anything in the marinated mozzarella balls and the most prominent ingredient in seafood salads are wads and plugs of artificial crab. If you bring someone here who doesn't eat meat and expect this to pass muster, you'll probably have some explaining to do.
Much better side dishes are brought to your table by the waiters, however, including platters of sweet, fried bananas and very crisp fried yucca, bowls of red beans and baskets of pao de queijo, a Brazilian cheese bread. Made with cassava flour, these little buns have an odd, gummy texture, somewhat like a Colombian arepa, and almost taste undercooked on the inside, but once you accustom yourself to the unfamiliar stretchiness they can be hard to stop eating.
Even if you have the restraint to save room for dessert, don't. The cheesecake is decent, but the copious whipped cream was really the best part of other desserts. If you suspect you have room for more food, it's better at Fire of Brazil to flip that card over to green again and review the next float in the meat parade.
- Cheryl Gerber
- Gaucho Prudencio Apasa prepares to carve off a portion of beef at Fire of Brazil.