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Fogo de Chao report (really long)

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Fogo de Chao report (really long)

JeffB | Aug 21, 2002 12:49 PM

Yesterday, this Brazilian Churrascaria at 661 N LaSalle and Erie opened for business; as a long time fan of their restaurants in Brazil and Texas, I made reservations for dinner. First, what Fogo is not: it is not a wide-ranging Brazilian restaurant with any of the great Afro-Portugese cooking of the northern state of Bahia. No vatapa, moqueca, feijoada, acaraje, or even condiments like farofa. Second, what Fogo is: easily the best chain of Brazilian churrascarias (compared e.g., to Porcao (Miami branch) and Plataforma (NYC)), serving a dizzying aray of meats cooked over open flames. The food is that of the pampas So. Brazil shares with Uruguay and Argentina. Meat, meat and more meat, plus an extravagant salad bar and some side starches. The drill here is the same as at any churascarria: you pay $38 (extra for drinks & dessert) and you get whatever you want, as much as you want, at your own pace, for as long as you want. The meat is served by skilled and hospitable southern Brazilian men, trained in Sao Paulo for a minimum of two years (so said the attentive maitre'd, herself a Paulista, apparently). The guys wear gaucho costumes and buzz about the room with freshly-flamed meats on sword-like skewers -- a bit hokey, but no more so than the Morton's show-and-tell. The experience is not for everyone, but IMO the Chicago branch of Fogo met each criterium for a churascarria stunningly well for a newly-opened establishment. First, the room -- huge and very lovely with a lot of stone and wood and restored high timbered ceilings (it's in an old warehouse). Also, the most spectacular flowers I have seen in a long time; it looked like they robbed the Garfield Park Conservatory. Although the place was packed (the Gibsons crowd, but many Brasilians and other Latinos too), we were seated promptly at the time of our reservation. Caipirinhas were perfect and much better than any I've had in Chicago. They are not afraid to use the proper amount of sugar (a lot) or to muddle the drink. Wine list is well-chosen with a wide geographical range and more southern hemisphere selections than you are likely to see in other Chicago restaurants. (Especially the good value Argentine reds that you hardly see out at all.) Our Cal. Ferrari Carano meritage was a good choice. The salad bar: crisp house-marinated artichoke bottoms, pristine hearts of palm, wild-tasting (as opposed to farmed) house-cured salmon in ridiculous quantities, various mayo-based salads (big in Brazil), Belgian endive, good cheese and prosciutto, etc. etc. Bread is pao de quejo, addictive fresh-baked puffs the size of golf balls filled with cheese (like aged provolone). When your salad plates are cleared, you flip a round chip over from its red to green side, attracting the gauchos' attention. The meats on hand last night, in no particular order were: top sirloin, tenderloin wrapped in bacon, chicken breast in bacon, prime rib, carved whole tenderloin, pork loin, pork ribs, pork chunks dusted with dry, pungent cheese (like that used in some Mexican dishes), lamb shank, lamb chops, top round, an unidentified cut of beef smeared with garlic, pork linguica (sausages), and chicken drumsticks. Yes, I tried them all, at least once. Although it is all prepared the same way, on a spit in front of a hard-wood fire, nothing tasted redundant owing to various subtle rubs and marinades. Impressively, none of the chicken or pork was either dry or undercooked. The table's favorites were the top sirloin, pork ribs (baby backs, tender but clinging to the bone), tenderloin and pork w/cheese. If you do not want what the gaucho has to offer, simply make your preference known and someone will appear with the meat of your choice in a few moments. You take as much or as little as you want, and for the red meats, the servers generally have all levels of "doneness" on hand. The best part of this style of cooking, IMO, is the fact that the meat is returned to the fire each time its charred outer crust has been depleted, the renewal assuring carbon flavor in each bite (like good gyros or shwarma). Many meats may be too salty for some, not me. Sides (constantly replenished in an apparent attempt to distract you from the more expensive meat) include great fried polenta squares dusted with the ubiquitous dry cheese, ok mashed potatoes w/cheese and scallions, and very good fried platanos maduros. As at many steak places deserts were simple, big, and tasty. Superior flan, good cheesecake, and a unique, not-very-sweet digestion-enhancing papaya mousse, my favorite. If Morton's meets Vegas buffet meets Mas is not your idea of a good time, don't go. It's not cheap, it's gimmicky, you might hate youself in the morning; but its also authentic and it's good. It also is as warm and elegant as I imagine any "all you can eat" place could be (then again, there's the Four Seasons brunch)and the Brazilian service/hospitality is justly famous. I predict great success. BTW, Fogo is open for lunch (at a substantially reduced price), the thought of which I cannot fathom. I suppose you could take the afternoon off.

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