Wednesday, January 25, 2006

The gauchos in their light blue shirts, wide black leather belts and red scarves glide gracefully as a cowboy roping a heifer, moving though the dining room with skewers of meat: beef, pork, lamb, chicken and sausage. Fogo de Chao, the new southern Brazilian churrascaria, serves grilled meat the gaucho way.

The formula is simple, identical at lunch and dinner: guests serve themselves at the salad bar while a waiter brings a basket of warm, divine little cheese rolls to the table (they’re addictive). Then, on clean plates, diners are served by the gauchos who come by frequently with 15 different cuts of meat.

Diners control the service with small round paper discs — the green side up means bring on more meat; red means stop for now. You can turn the disc over as often as you like.

Waiters are not assigned to specific tables; if diners want something, they can hail any waiter, who will promptly deal with the request. While this is a good idea for a restaurant of this kind, the number of gauchos and waiters constantly moving about the restaurant promotes a certain quality of restlessness.

Traditionally, Brazilian gauchos, or cowboys, grilled their meat on skewers slowly over open pits. Hence the name, fogo de chao, which, literally, means ground fire. At Fogo de Chao, each gaucho not only serves the meat, but is responsible for seasoning and grilling it over an open fire, although in Washington, this is done on a gas-fired grill, according to fire regulations.

Fogo de Chao is part of a small chain owned by two Brazilian brothers. They own four restaurants in Brazil and a half-dozen in the United States, all using the same formula. Management brings real gauchos from Brazil, some of whom stay and some train others in the grilling and serving of meat Brazilian style.

The new Washington restaurant, on the ground floor of the old Evening Star building on Pennsylvania Avenue at 11th Street Northwest, has been designed by Adamstein & Demetriou. It seats about 350 people, but the large space is cleverly divided by walls of wine bottles and nicely spaced tables. Even when the restaurant is full, it is not overly noisy and it’s possible to have a conversation.

In Brazil, we’re told, the meat is never served with anything green. Hence, the salad bar, traditionally Brazilian. At Fogo de Chao, the salad bar is sumptuous. Everything is very fresh and each bowl is replenished whenever it begins to look empty. Beautiful fat asparagus, spikes of heart of palm, artichoke hearts, succulent sun-dried tomatoes, a crisp parsley salad similar to tabbouleh, prosciutto, mozzarella balls, salami, smoked salmon, beets, a refreshing apple salad with raisins, crisp greens, red and yellow peppers and an enormous wheel of Parmesan cheese are some of the offerings.

Slices of fresh tomato have little flavor at this time of the year, and the potato salad is bland, but almost everything else is fresh and good. Everything is pretty and appetizing. There’s no prepared vinaigrette, although olive oil and vinegar stand available, and there are bowls of several dressings, including a good ranch. There’s a tart basil sauce for the smoked salmon.

All the cuts of meat are juicy and flavorful, but some are better than others. All are heavily salted and most are rubbed with herbs and spices. The best are the picanha, the house special, a prime sirloin seasoned with sea salt and a touch of garlic; wonderfully tender lamb chops and a delicious leg of lamb. Pork ribs are very good; the pork loin is sometimes tender, sometimes a bit tough, but always flavorful.

Aside from the picanha, there are five other beef cuts: top sirloin, bottom sirloin, beef ribs, filet mignon and garlic steak. The filet is butter-tender, as is the garlic steak. Chicken is grilled either as juicy legs or breast morsels wrapped in a lovely smoky bacon. Linguica, or Portuguese pork sausage, is also one of the skewered meats. Beef and lamb are cooked rare, medium rare and well done, sometimes all three on one skewer. The formula accommodates large appetites as well as small ones, but there are no doggie bags.

Although nothing green is served with the meat, excellent garlic mashed potatoes topped with a sprinkling of cheese and green onions, fried bananas and nondescript squares of fried polenta do accompany the meats. The bananas are a pleasantly sweet touch.

Drinks, dessert and coffee are not included in the comprehensive price ($24.50 at lunch and $44.50 for dinner). The wine list is extensive with a good selection of California, South American including Brazilian, Australian, New Zealand and European wines. They are on the expensive side, ranging from $35 for an Argentine cabernet sauvignon 2001 to, ahem, $1,300 for a Chateau Margaux premier grand cru 2000. White wines are less expensive than reds. There is a good selection of wines by the glass as well as a dozen half bottles.

Most desserts, such as cheesecake, Key lime pie, chocolate cake and ice cream are not made in-house. The kitchen does make a delicious papaya cream, a frothy blend of papaya and vanilla ice cream, topped with creme de cassis, and a rich, creamy flan. Strawberry mousse is a blend of strawberries and ice cream and can also be topped with the black-currant liqueur.

Fogo de Chao is a carnivore’s heaven. The brave vegetarian who wanders in, probably by mistake, can get an ample meal at the salad bar for $19.50. Curiously, there is no indication anywhere in the restaurant as to the price of the meal. If the waiters are meant to tell you, they didn’t tell us.

RESTAURANT: Fogo de Chao, 1101 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, 202/347-4668

HOURS: Lunch 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday to Friday; dinner 5 to 10 p.m. Monday to Thursday, until 10:30 p.m. Friday, from 4:30 to 10:30 p.m. Saturday and from 4 to 9:30 p.m. Sunday

PRICES: Lunch, $22.50; dinner, $44.40; desserts, $6.25 to $8.50

CREDIT CARDS: All major cards

PARKING: Metered street parking; dinner only $6 valet parking

ACCESS: Wheelchair accessible

METRO: Federal Triangle (Orange and Blue lines); Metro Center (Red line)

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