By Jeff Dufour - 03/09/06 12:00 AM EST
Downtown D.C. has long been awash with steakhouses, so much so that it boasts a cut of meat and a presentation for nearly every palette.
After sampling the dry-aged strips at Capital Grille, the 48-ounce porterhouse at Morton’s and the nouveau meat preparations at Charlie Palmer’s, you’d think there was nothing left.
And yet Fogo de Chao is something completely different.
Fogo is a growing chain of restaurants that began in Porto Alegre, Brazil, in 1979, the brainchild of Jair and Arri Coser, two churrasqueiros, or gaucho chefs. After expanding to Sao Paulo, the brothers opened in Dallas and then in four other American cities before landing in D.C. in December.
At the restaurant, they drop the open pits (which I guess would violate some section of the city code) in favor of gas-and-charcoal grills and rotisseries.
The barbecue room, boasting numerous fires, is tended throughout service by the gauchos themselves. Born in Brazil and outfitted in the traditional garb of black leather boots, pantaloons and neckerchiefs, each of the gauchos tends one or more cuts of meat during its time on the fire, then emerges into the dining room. With the meat still on the skewers, the chefs roam the room and carve it right onto your plate.
Unlike most any other restaurant in town, save sushi counters, the same people handle the preparation, cooking and serving of the food. There are clear advantages to this system. For instance, if you’d like a very rare slice of beef, your gaucho knows exactly where to aim his knife because he’s the one who cooked it.
And under their philosophy of “continuous service” they’ll keep the meat coming, with as many as 15 different cuts of beef, pork, chicken and lamb, until you say when. At the table, a disc with green and red sides allows you to control the pace. Red means stop; green means bring it on.
There’s nothing subtle here. Gluttony is encouraged, and it’s a lot of big, bold, one-note flavors: meat sometimes dripping with fat, crusted with cheese or wrapped in bacon.
Among the best: the rib-eye steak, uniquely sliced across the grain; the garlic-marinated beef and the tangy linguica sausages.
Pork loin, skewered lengthwise, emerged dry and flavorless, but a parmesan-crusted tenderloin, sliced into medallions, was juicy and hit all the right notes.
Pork ribs fell a bit flat compared to the boldly spiced American version. But lamb lovers will keep waving the gaucho back to sample more of the juicy, tender leg.
Atkins dieters and other carbophobes will be right at home here, especially since the traditional side dishes leave much to be desired.
The warm cheese bread and polenta were both unforgivably dry, the garlic mashed potatoes clumpy. Sweet fried bananas were the best of the bunch.
But you’re better off with multiple trips to the cold buffet, an upscale salad bar in the center of the room, where the waiters suggest you start your meal.
There you’ll find three different types of salad greens, roasted peppers, dried tomatoes, parmesan and mozzarella, giant steamed asparagus, smoked salmon, hearts of palm and prosciutto, to name a few.
It’s a fine meal in itself, and can be had as one for $19.50, sans gaucho meat.
But at only $44.50 for dinner or $24.50 for lunch, the bacchanal of the full experience could be the best bang for your carnivorous buck in town.
Of course, you’ll need something to wash all that protein down. May I suggest Fogo’s delightful rendition of the caipirinha, brimming with fresh lime?
The wine list won’t rival those at the steakhouses listed above, but it won’t bankrupt you either. And why not try one of the two dozen or so excellent South American wines on the list, many which are not widely available around here?
Fogo de Chao is a massive operation, seating about 320 when you figure in the private dining spaces upstairs. Designed, naturally, by go-to restaurant gurus Adamstein and Demetriou, the space is dominated by polished stone and mosaic tiles, featuring large murals of life on the Brazilian range.
It all adds up to a satisfying package and one of D.C.’s most interesting new eateries.
Hours: Lunch Mon.-Fri., 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.; dinner Mon.-Thurs. 5-10 p.m., Fri. 5-10:30 p.m., Sat. 4:30-10:30 p.m., Sun. 4-9:30 p.m.