Monday, November 5, 2012

First Impressions: Fogo de Chao

"You had me at 'Meat Tornado,'" said Joel (quoting his hero, Ron Swanson) when I asked him whether he'd like to partake of an evening of endless meats on sticks, a preview dinner for the newly opened Boston location of Brazilian steakhouse Fogo de Chão. For the record, I said nothing about meat tornados or tournedos, but anything after the word "meat" is generally a blissful blur anyway.

The 26-location chain was founded in Brazil in 1979, and the 320-seat Boston location opened to the public this past Friday in the The Palm's former space at the Westin Copley (plus a little extra on the side). The total renovation and build-out cost? $8 million. On Wednesday, I stopped by to shoot some interior photos for Eater - the place looks pretty snazzy - and on Thursday night, Joel and I joined hundreds of diners for a complimentary preview dinner.

As I've admitted in the past, I generally don't have high expectations for most chains, but I was cautiously optimistic that this would at least equal the one Brazilian steakhouse experience I'd had in the past at a different chain (delicious but overwhelming). If you're a meat lover, it's hard not to enjoy it. The details vary amongst restaurants like this, but in general, servers (who are also the chefs) bring skewers of various meats to your table and slice portions off right onto your plate. You guide the timing by flipping a card to green or red to request more meat or to take a break. There's a salad bar and sides to help fill you up with non-meaty things as well.

I was particularly impressed with a few things at Fogo de Chão (keeping in mind that this was a complimentary press/friends/family dinner, of course). First, the salad bar - it was actually good. Forget Iceberg lettuce and wilted, unappetizing veggies. Everything was fresh and colorful, and there were even some nice cheeses and cured meats. The salad bar is included in the all-the-meat-you-can-eat price ($46.50/person for dinner), which also includes a bunch of side dishes. If a vegetarian somehow gets stuck going here with you, he or she can eat from the salad bar for $28.50.

Secondly, the service was like a well-choreographed dance. It all seemed effortless. We hardly saw the same server twice; different people handled drinks, sides, and clean plates, while an endless stream of chefs handled the different cuts of meat. Perhaps there were a few too many times when a server showed up to check on us, but we always had what we needed (and more), and everyone was friendly and knowledgeable about the menu.

Thirdly, the caipirinha, a traditional Brazilian cocktail...well, I'm a sucker for a good caipirinha. It's like a mojito, but even better. These were the perfect mix of sweet and sour and boozy, and by the middle of the meal, I couldn't tell if I was lightheaded from the drinks or if I slipping into a meat haze. Probably a little bit of both.

Finally, and most importantly, the meat was outstanding. I can hardly recall which cuts we tried at this point, but I remember particularly loving a perfectly rare bottom sirloin (fraldinha) and lamb (cordeiro). The chefs ask which temperature you prefer and then slice off the appropriate portion. We were told that the chefs get a feel for which tables like which cuts of meat and meat temperatures, and as the night progressed, we did have more chefs approach us with the rarest cuts still available.

The sides were great, too. I was a huge fan of the caramelized bananas and easily could have made a meal of those. I also loved the pão de queijo - warm cheese bread - a Brazilian treat that is fortunately (or dangerously) also available right in my neighborhood at Fortissimo Coffeehouse. And we were given the most heavenly toasted cheese at the start of the meal. That one doesn't seem to be on the menu, but hopefully it'll make a repeat appearance.

My advice for health and comfort - but not for getting more than your money's worth of meat, if that's what you want to do - is to start the meal leisurely with a nice big salad. Enjoy the pão de queijo and side dishes liberally, and flip your card to red after each portion of meat arrives rather than loading up your plate with every meat in the room, devouring it all quickly, and then getting even more. And skip dessert. It's unnecessary and forgettable.

Fogo de Chão is definitely not an experience I'd recommend for frequent visits, but it's a fun special occasion place. Maybe not for date night, though. You won't feel romantic after participating in this meat orgy. There's no way to avoid the meat coma. It'll probably become a meat hangover the next morning.

Next month, I'm playing a small role in an independent film as well as doing a lot of behind-the-scenes work, so in preparation for the very intense week of shooting in early December, I'm spending November getting into peak physical condition, which includes cutting way back on my meat intake. Fogo de Chão was the perfect farewell-to-meat dinner.

Fogo de Chão on Urbanspoon

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