Located in the Weston Copley Place in the space that formerly housed The Palm, Fogo de Chão has kept it an upscale steakhouse but given it a Brazilian twist. It's a churrascaria (sometimes called rodizio, sometimes called Brazilian steakhouse, sometimes called Brazilian barbecue), where gaucho chefs bring skewers of flame roasted meats to your table, carving the piece you want, at the doneness you want and letting you have as much as you want. Much like its predecessor, Fogo de Chão is a chain but a highly regarded one. It started in Brazil in 1979 and now has seven locations in that country and 19 in the US, with a single restaurant per major market.
Yes, a churrascaria is all about the meat, but the salad bar buffet included with it has a wide variety of non-meat starters and sides, including a few hot ones (rice, beans, potatoes).
Most eye catching is the tandem at one corner that features a bowl of bacon and a huge wheel of Parmigiano Reggiano. There's the typical greenery, tomatoes, artichoke hearts, a few different peppers, a pepper salsa that can be used as a meat topping, bread, cured meats and a few more cheeses.
Servers automatically furnish the table with more hot sides when they see you have progressed to your meat course (you can keep going back to the salad bar). These include mashed potatoes, fried polenta and fried bananas.
Gaucho chefs (cowboys) circle the handful of rooms with about a dozen different meats that they bring on skewers to each table. The exact number of offerings in the meat arsenal depends on whether you count the "white meat versus dark meat," "garlic or no garlic" and "wrapped in bacon or not" permutations as separate entities.
At first I suspected that "gaucho chef" was a title bestowed on the servers in the same way that "service representative" is claimed by pimply faced teens at department stores. But they do more than just wear the boots and carve the meats. On their trips back to the kitchen they prepare and maintain those meats as they cook on those same skewers. Each gaucho is responsible for a particular meat: salting the raw product with a very coarse sea salt, placing it on the skewer, inserting it into the J&R combination broiler (yes, the same J&R in Mesquite TX that makes my favorite barbecue pits) where they rotate, adding more finer-granule salt as it cooks, judging doneness and transferring to a different level as needed, serving to customers and returning to re-salt and reinsert the carved and very rare inner remainder so that it develops another crust and cooks to desired doneness. Whew.
The full meal with rodizio and salad bar is $46.50 for dinner, $28.50 at lunch. Salad bar only is $22.50 for lunch or dinner. Desserts are extra; most are around $8.00.
I dined as a guest of the restaurant as part of their effort to reach out to local bloggers. The idea of "blogging for food" is not only one I'm uncomfortable with, but one I despise. I approached this—and as further disclosure, I aproached them—as an experiment of sorts. This is not an experiment to be repeated often, if ever, and it's one that will NEVER be done with a barbecue or burger review.
A two-sided disc controls the flow of gauchos and meats: keep in on green to keep 'em coming; flip it to red to signal that you're stopping to relax. But relax, you can always flip it back to green.
Tongs are for securing your slice off meat as it's carved off the skewer.
The brochure (available at the hostess stand) is a brief listing and guide to all of the meats on offer. I like to think of it as a checklist.
Here's the run-down of all the meats I tried, in approximate chronological order, presented mostly as photos (click on any image to view a larger version) with brief comments as applicable.
Piranha (prime). The specialty of the house was juicy and medium rare as requested, with doneness well past medium at the crust. Salty but not in-your-face salty as at other churrascarias. To be honest, I wasn't blown away by this cut, which reminded me more of London broil.
Cordeiro (lamb), bacon wrapped chicken breast and piranha. The T-bone cut of lamb (chops are also available) was much more impressive, with a sturdy and well-seasoned crust fortressing juicier meat beneath. Mint, lemon pepper and white wine gave this some added zing, and although it wasn't one of the ingredients, I could swear there was a hint of hot oil in there somewhere. Definitely one of the highlights, succeeding in both texture and flavor. There's no getting around it, the chicken breast was very dry. What almost saved it was the surrounding bacon that had a very unique and enjoyable smokiness.
Garlic beef. Slightly garlicky, very tender, very juicy, mostly roast beefy.
Pork rib early on. Very pale, very subdued, very juicy.
Filet mignon and beef rib slice. The former lacked that identifying shape but wasn't lacking in bumpy crust, robust seasoning and juicy interior. The latter had rich, silky smoothness and flavor from the marbling that you could taste and feel in every bite.
Another look at the filet mignon and beef rib slice.
More piranha (prime) from another skewer about an hour later. This one was an upgrade from the first.
Fraldinha (bottom sirloin) got away from the London broily, roast beefy, prime ribby feel of the previous beef selections, and had the look, feel and flavor of what I think of when I think of steak. Similar to skirt steak, with the same richness and a little less tenderness, though still tender. This one had a nice crust.
Beef ancho (prime part of the ribeye). Tender, juicy. Didn't knock me over with flavor.
Pork rib from another skewer toward the end of the meal. This end piece had better crusting, much more seasoning and more juiciness. Still a little vanilla away from that crust, but it's a cleaner, lighter expression of pork that's welcome at times.
Chicken leg and linguica (sausage). The chicken was one of the surprise favorites of the night, with flavor in and well below the crisp skin, and good moisture throughout. The sausage was tamer, with a subtle aromatic flavor that was light on porkiness.
Alcatra (top sirloin), along with another view of my second pork rib. This cut was more tender than butter and extremely juicy.
Though nearly full, I tried the papaya cream ($8.75), which Fogo de Chão touts as its signature dessert. It's made with blended papaya and ice cream, served in an oversized brandy snifteresque goblet, topped tableside with creme de cassis creme and adorned with a tropical flower. I'm normally not one for desserts and not one for non-chocolate desserts, but this refreshing palate cleanser made for a rewarding exception. Fellas, if you're on a date, go with this one.
Meat quality (subjective, I know) varied not only with the meat cut but with the different batches of the same cut. You may get a slightly dry slice of a meat the first time and a very juicy slice of a meat the second time. The key is to figure out what you like best and then keep going back to it. Or, rather, have it keep coming back to you.
The meats here are a little salty, but much less salty than other churrascarias.
Similarly, the meats have less of that charcoaly flamey character than other churrascarias. The equipment here keeps more distance between the meat and the fire than at most, but fire is involved.
Service is off the charts. You can argue all day over whether Fogo de Chão or its predecessor had the better steaks, but there's no doubt that the staff at Fogo is a cut above, and that surprised me. I took great care early on to distinguish between the possible extra care I might have been receiving as a guest and the service at every other table. The service standard was stratospheric throughout the room. Out of rolls? New bread basket. Not out of rolls yet, but they're not as warm as at the beginning? New bread basket. Need a sauce? Done. Need a new plate? Here you go. Looking for a particular meat? On its way. Dessert? Prepared tableside.
The PigTrip Guide to Maximizing Your Enjoyment
Follow this 13-point plan to get the most out of Fogo de Chão:
1. Pre-meal preparation: a) make reservations; b) make sure you select a dining companion who'll ideally keep pace but at the very least will not impede your progress; c) don't eat lunch the day you go; d) wear business casual; e) make that the loosest business casual you can manage.
2. Parking: There's $15 valet service at the Westin entrance. Parking under the Prudential Center is another good option that's discounted with a purchase and requires an all-indoor but substantial walk to and from dinner.
3. At the hostess stand, grab a brochure—I call it a program—that lists and describes the various meat cuts. Don't expect anything much more detailed than the drinks menu at a tiki lounge, but it's handy as both a photo guide and a checklist.
4. Survey the entire salad bar before you take any of it. You'll want to get a feel for which things are must-haves, which could go either way and which would be nice but just don't make the cut.
5. After formulating your mental salad bar list, take only about half of what's in that plan—for now. Trust me.
6. They're not served automatically, but you can (and should) request pepper sauce and chimichurri as condiments. These not only add another layer of flavor to the meats but also cut their heaviness with vinegar, heat and herbs.
7. It's very easy to feel overwhelmed—like Lucille Ball in the famous chocolate factory episode of I Love Lucy—as the meats keep coming faster than you really want them. The best strategy is to keep your disc on red at all times, then just wave a gaucho over when you see something you like.
8. After a few rounds of meats, you'll start to hit the wall, so don't even try to power through. Instead, take a break two different ways. One is to just sit back, relax and digest for a few. Another is to go with the time-tested approach used by competitive eaters: switch up the flavor and texture by hitting the salad bar.
9. When I say hit the salad bar, I mean hit the vegetables. Sure, there's bacon (crisp but not warm) and there's Parmigiano Reggiano (Brazilian, my ass), but you can get better examples of those elsewhere and you'd be far better off with cucumbers, tomatoes, vinegar peppers, baby spinach and endive. So be sure to enjoy the endive—'n dive back into the meats when you're through.
10. Don't be afraid to use one of my favorite buffet strategies. If you're hankering for a hunk of bottom sirloin, and a gaucho brings over a skewer of it over but it doesn't look so great, just pass. You can always get a better one the next time around.
11. If there's a meat that doesn't seem to be coming out or coming your way, don't be afraid to tell your main waiter or even one of the gauchos which meats you want, and they'll be more than happy to take care of you.
12. It's easy to overlook the chicken, but don't—especially the chicken legs. Yeah, yeah, I know, you can have chicken at home so why have it here, and why have chicken when there's so much beef, and why have a leg when there's bacon wrapped breast. Just give one chicken leg a try, and thank me later.
13. If you're on a date, order the papaya cream for dessert. If not, know that there's a big bucket of wrapped dark chocolates by the hostess stand.
The Bottom Line
Would I go back? Absolutely, although I'd do it more for the cultural experience and off-the charts service experience than the steaks, which I'd classify as certainly good but not life altering. As much as I am a fan of good food, I'm also a fan of well run restaurants, and this is one of the best.
Other Opinion/ Info
Chef Marco Bonfada of Fogo de Chão prepares 3 meats
Chef Neri Giachini of Fogo de Chão prepares papaya cream
Yelp reviews of Fogo de Chão
Urbanspoon reviews of Fogo de Chão
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