Sunday, April 12, 2009

A Meat and Sodium Lover's Paradise - Brazilian Barbecue at Fogo De Chao (Beverly Hills)

A visit to a Brazilian Churrascaria (Steakhouse) is an eye-opening experience for those that haven't grown up with it. The L.A. / O.C. area is lucky enough to be home to quite a few of these restaurants focused on Brazilian Churrasco (Barbecue). The concept behind these restaurants are the same: A prix fixe setup, where the customer is presented with unlimited servings of the entire menu, usually a good selection of meats and a fresh vegetable bar. Amongst all the Churrascarias in So Cal, Fogo De Chao (Beverly Hills) is considered to be the best of this style of cuisine, an outpost of the famous Fogo De Chao of Brazil.

And beyond the basic concept, the most interesting part is the delivery: Multiple waiters approach each table with a huge metal skewer of a particular cut and preparation of meat and a blade to slice the meat off the skewer as the customer requests it. And the final part to this is the espeto corrido (continuous service) facet, where a disc with Green on one side and Red on the other is left in front of each diner. If you're ready to try the different cuts of meat, turn it so that the Green side is showing. When you want to stop or take a break, flip it over to the Red side. It's a simple concept to control the wild rush of barbecued meats that can overwhelm the customer at times. :)

Fogo De Chao originated with two brothers growing up in Rio Grande do Sul, the south-most State in Brazil, which is also famous for its churrasco (Brazilian barbecue). I had heard much about Fogo De Chao, and its first So Cal restaurant - in Beverly Hills - has garnered so much praise since it opened that I was excited to finally get a chance to try it. Fogo De Chao (Beverly Hills) has an impressive, large cooking area (exposed for passerbys to take a peak at the slow-cooking meats over charcoal), and a spacious, dining area; it's certainly the nicest Brazilian Barbecue restaurant I've visited so far.

Before turning over the disc to Green, my guests and I pay a visit to another mainstay of a good Brazilian Churrascaria: The gourmet Salad Bar.

Fogo De Chao features some of the freshest vegetable dishes I've sampled at a Churrascaria as well. Their Salad Bar is well-maintained, and beautifully presented, with large piles of fresh Asparagus, Artichoke Hearts, Sun-Dried Tomatoes, Smoked Salmon and much more.

After getting a nice plate of fresh greens (in anticipation to balance the onslaught of meat :), we flip over the disc to the Green side and it begins: The first waiter comes over to us immediately with a large metal skewer and offers up Costela de Porco (Slow-Roasted Pork Ribs). The Costela de Porco is completely different from the standard American BBQ Pork Rib dish, e.g., there's no BBQ Sauce and the dry marinade is much simpler.

Here, there's a nice crisped, outer crust on the Pork Ribs, seasoned with Rock Salt and Pepper. It was ~OK, with a good porkiness coming through with each bite, but it was surprisingly mild for something cooked over charcoal. It lacked almost any smokiness whatsoever, and tasted more like broiled Ribs.

The next meat we tried was Lombo (Pork Loin Encrusted with Parmesan Cheese) (they also serve Lombo without the Cheese). Slow-roasting Pork Loin has the potential for disaster if not properly cooked or watched over; I was fearing a dry piece of meat, but the Pork Loin was delicious! Extremely tender and moist, with a beautiful balance of White Wine and Parmesan Cheese notes pervading each bite of the Lombo. Excellent.

A waiter arrived to quickly serve us their newest menu item: Beef Ancho (Prime Rib Eye). With an announcement like that, we were expecting a meltingly tender, nice cut of steak. Taking a bite, it was disappointing: There was a clean, focused flavor from the Ancho that made it stand out from the other cuts, but it tasted like a lower grade of meat than a top-quality Prime Rib Eye. It was slightly stringy and chewy, being surprisingly lean for a Rib Eye. I had a Steak Hound with me that night and they reflected my disappointment in the cut as well.

Continuing on, we had their Bacon-Wrapped Filet Mignon. This is usually a great pairing, and it sounded delectable, but this turned out to be a major disappointment as well: The Filet Mignon (even though it was Bacon-Wrapped) was overcooked to a complete well-done state and it was extremely salty. My guests all agreed that this was strangely much saltier than any of us imagined.

Their Frango, specifically Bacon-Wrapped Chicken, arrived at the same time as the Filet Mignon. Sadly, this suffered the same fate as the Filet Mignon we just had: Extremely salty and overcooked. To make matters worse, they used Chicken Breast for this presentation, so not only was it overcooked, but overcooked Chicken Breast turned this into a nearly inedible, dry, chunky mess. :(

Continuing on, their Lombo Pork *Tenderloin* encrusted with Parmesan Cheese arrived next. After the deliciousness of their Pork Loin, I was really looking forward to the Tenderloin version of this dish. Unfortunately, it was extremely dry and very salty. The Parmesan added an interesting note to the Pork, but it was so dried out that it took away from everything else about the dish.

The waiter mentioned that their Picanha (Prime Sirloin with Garlic) was one of the most popular cuts, so we were hoping at this point that this would deliver something positive to the dining experience. While the exterior looked extremely overcooked, thankfully it turned out to be about ~medium-to-medium-well in doneness. The Garlic added another note that had been missing in most of the previous cuts, and the Sirloin was moist, but nothing noteworthy.

The Fraldinha (Bottom Sirloin) turned out to be surprisingly more enjoyable than the Picanha: The cut of Bottom Sirloin was very moist with a good, meaty texture without being overly chewy. The flavor was pretty straightforward with Sea Salt and simple roasting. Like the previous cuts, I was hoping for more of a smokiness to come through, but it was not meant to be.

Their straight Filet Mignon (No Bacon) was another shock: Cutting it from the whole Filet Mignon, I asked for the rarest portion they had (as did my guests). What our server informed us was that the doneness of the Filet that we were presented with was what it was normally cooked to: Well-done. A well-done Filet Mignon is just a disappointment on too many levels, and here, it was thankfully not overly salted, but merely overcooked, which resulted in a toughness and chunkiness that never should happen to this cut.

Next up was their Cordeiro (Fresh, Young Leg of Lamb). I love Lamb, so I was hoping that perhaps this would save the evening. It was thankfully not overcooked, and taking a bite, there was a good, distinct Lamb essence in each bite - clean, fresh - but then immediately overpowered by Salt. Like many of the dishes before, there was a level of Saltiness that I hadn't experienced at a restaurant in years (across so many dishes). If the salt-level was dialed back about ~30% - 50% for this dish, it would've been great.

We were then presented with Picanha (Prime Sirloin with Sea Salt). The Picanha with Garlic that we had earlier was decent and moist, so we were hoping for the best here. It seemed that Garlic was probably the ideal version because this Picanha was a bit too dry for my tastes (drier and chunkier than the Picanha with Garlic). And while this dish was prepared with Sea Salt as the main component, it was another salt bomb. It overpowered the Sirloin so completely that we really felt like we were eating some "meat-flavored salt" instead of "salt-flavored meat." Disappointing.

Their Cordeiro (as Lamb Chops) were another cut I was looking forward to. I was hoping that it'd be moister and less salty than their Leg of Lamb earlier. But as you can see from this picture, it was so overcooked, blackened and charred that the Lamb Chops were completely well-done. It was still somewhat tender, but a bit mealy and dry because of it being overcooked.

Normally at the Brazilian Barbecues I've visited so far, the Costela (Beef Ribs) have turned out to be sleeper hits in a way: Slow-roasted so that a good fatty, juiciness still exists with each bite. Here the Costela had the most amount of gristle I've had in a Beef Rib in the last ~3-4 years. There was a good, real beefy quality and it wasn't over-salted, but the cut was just bad. Every single bite I had of this Costela was a mouthful of chewy gristle. :(

For some strange reason, our server completely forgot to give us any of their famous Warm Cheese Bread until we were nearly done with our meal. Thankfully they were absolutely delicious! :) They were a nice toasty warm temperature, and were wonderfully fluffy, crisp in parts and filled with a soft, cheesy quality that never overwhelmed the muffin / bread characteristic. Delicious! :)

Their Linguica (Pork Sausage) had a really nice spiciness to each bite, with a good garlic and onion flavor complementing the Pork, but it was also pretty salty, but for Sausages, you expect a certain amount of sodium. It's not something I'd order again, but for Sausage lovers, this is for you. :)

The final dish was their Frango (Chicken Leg). This time, with No Bacon, I was hoping to end the evening on a good note... but it was not meant to be: While fragrant notes from the White Wine seeped through, it was generally another Sodium Bomb, with it somehow being just as salty without the Bacon as it was with Bacon earlier in the evening.

Service was standard fare: With the Meat-serving Waiters coming to your table whenever you had the Green face of the disc showing, there was never a lack of timely delivery of dishes. The only hiccup was the missing Cheese Bread until the end of the meal. Price-wise, Fogo De Chao charges $56.50 per person (before tax and tip), making it the most expensive Brazilian Churrascaria in So Cal.

Ultimately, Fogo De Chao prides itself on delivering a high-quality, upscale setting for Brazilian Barbecue. From the price point to the immaculate gourmet Salad Bar and ambiance, it's very clear. Unfortunately, Fogo fails to deliver on the most important aspect: The quality and execution of the meat itself. The vast majority of the different cuts of Beef, Chicken, Lamb and Pork were really disappointing, mainly being either overcooked (well-done), or far too salty, or both. Both of these facets really kill any chance to enjoy the more subtle flavors of each cut. To make matters worse, they don't even have the more "exotic" cuts that cheaper and lower-quality Brazilian Churrascarias serve, like Chicken Hearts. Unless they cut back on the amount of Salt being used and refocus on delivering properly cooked meats (e.g., so that Filet Mignon won't be served well-done), it's hard to recommend Fogo De Chao (Beverly Hills) to anyone outside extreme Salt and Meat Lovers.

Rating: 5.0 (out of 10.0)

Fogo De Chao (Beverly Hills)
133 N. La Cienaga Blvd.
Beverly Hills, CA 90211
Tel: (310) 289-7755


Charlie Fu said...

While eating at a Brazilian Barbecue in Brea, the owner told me they typically eat their meat well done. Something I (as well as you) was shocked by since that just saps all the flavor out... but I guess that's just how it is =(.

Thanks for the post on this place tho, I've been wanting to try it and I was curious if it was worth 2x the price of the other places in OC/LA.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Charlie,

Thanks. Yah, having tried a few of the Brazilian Barbecue restaurants around town, I was curious how Fogo stacked up as well. It's just not worth it, IMHO, and reflecting back on my visits to other Churrascarias as well... There were a few places / cuts that I managed to get ~medium, but it was certainly rare.

Fogo was the saltiest of all the places I've visited so far, though (really surprising).

33 said...

I agreed with your assessment. The meats are too salty in general. Maybe they don't want the diners to eat too much. ;-) For $80 (tax, tip, parking) per, this place for me is one-time only and never again.

Noah said...

I watched a No Reservations episode set in Argentina where they were doing this festival of sorts, of massive outdoor cow grilling-- and Bourdain just walked around noting that they were destroying all the meat by over cooking it, so he set aside some steaks for himself and his friend, then they grilled them properly.

But is this consistent across the entire country, or just a thing that a certain section of society falls into? I'd love to know more.

Also-- I went to Fogo a while back, when it first opened, with Mr. Meatballs while we were still in college. I definitely remember some of the meat being sub par, but also remember being way too drunk and spilling a glass of wine all over my shirt. So who knows?

And at a certain point, I guess an all-you-can-eat restaurant is still an all-you-can-eat restaurant.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi 33,

Sorry to hear you had a similar experience to me. :( Yah, it was strangely high in sodium, and it just kinda ruined the meal for me and my guests.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Noah,

Thanks for the note on the No Reservations episode. I missed that one, but it's funny that Bourdain set aside some meat and cooked it to a better condition than what they saw at that festival. :)

Yah, ultimately it's still an "all you can eat" restaurant, but one would hope that with the prices they were charging and the fancy, upscale angle they're pushing, that the quality of the meat and execution would be better.

Pinkfoodie said...

Great review as always. I'm glad to know I am not missing out on much. Have you been to Samba in Redondo Beach? If so, how does it compare? Thanks.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Pinkfoodie,

Thanks. I haven't been to Samba in Redondo yet. If I do, I'll let you know how it compared.

Rob said...

Exile -
I couldn't agree more with your assessment. I've been to the Fogo De Chao here in Chicago numerous times and, at this point for me,it's pretty much all about the wonderful salad bar and its fantastic service (certainly, some of the best here).

Thanks for all your great reviews.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Rob,

Thanks for your thoughts on the place as well. It's unfortunate to hear that your experience mirrored mine as well. :( Here's to hoping there's a place with better execution in the future.

streetgourmetla said...

Hey Exilekiss.Well,you need to return to Fogo de Chao with me to give it another try.We should hit a few of these to warm up.Love Fogo de Chao!

Exile Kiss said...

Hi streetgourmetla,

Of course I'd be honored to visit again, or try other Brazilian BBQ places that you know of. :) Thanks.

Anonymous said...

I would stay away from Samba unless you like dry grey colored meat.

The best I've had is Fogo in LA and Plataforma in NYC.

Went to Fogo a couple of weeks ago and asked the server for medium rare and he came back with medium rare.

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