Spin control

Rodizio Grill needs to tighten its twirl

Rodizio means "rotation" in Portuguese. This definition, stated in a press release headlined "Totally Unique Grill to locate in the heart of Arlington," proved significant after two visits to Rodizio Grill, a continuous-service Brazilian churrascarias, or grill house, because the quality seemed to spiral downward from markedly flawed to barely acceptable. And this made the phrases coming from Rodizio's restroom sound system on my first visit particularly prescient.

While the rest of the restaurant was bathed in a cheesy hit parade from the '70s and '80s (the press release crows about how authentic Brazilian music adds to Rodizio's vibrant spirit), the restrooms were piped with Portuguese language instruction tapes. "Can I get this laundry washed?" said a gentleman in English. A woman repeated his words in Portuguese. The next phrase was even more momentous. "Can I have some toilet paper?"

It's amusing how critical it is to learn phrases like this when venturing outside U.S. borders. We so quickly take for granted that ours is a nation bursting with floral prints, spring scents, and shrink-wrapped rolls squished by Mr. Whipple. We're so blessed with the stuff, we thread it through people's landscaping or wrap their cars in it when we think they might be running out.

Now it would be tasteless--pointlessly and inexcusably tasteless--for me to say this bathroom blather had import because the food at this Brazil-goes-to-Arlington haunt made my entrails do the rodizio. Cheap and sophomoric too. So I'll refrain.

But I will say Rodizio Grill is an alarming place. It's fashioned around a variety of meats--beef, chicken, pork, ham, even buffalo--seasoned and impaled on long skewers and assembled on a special Brazilian grill known as a churrasqueira. The stuff is then dispensed by guachos--or servers dressed as Brazilian cowboys--who stop by tables on a continuous basis. Yet if the meat served here is seasoned (debatable), the servers certainly are not. Long skewers are collected and stored just outside the open kitchen in a large plastic barrel. Servers hover around that can, chat, and sharpen long knives against a steel, slicing through the air like clumsy Zorro mimics.

There is no attempt to explain to customers what is going on. On each table there is a small wooden doodad like a chess piece with the top painted red and the bottom painted green. An exposed red dot indicates you don't want any skewer service while the green dot says "stick me with meat." Laying the device on its side indicates you're ready for the dinner check. There is also a pair of tongs at each table setting that are used by the diner to hold and pull slices of meat from the skewer as the server holds it with one hand and works the knife with the other.

But on one visit, our servers never explained any of this. (We sat for a good 30 minutes after finishing dessert on our first visit, waiting in exasperation for the check because the servers didn't explain the code language for closing out the meal.) So the gauchos would pry, cut, and flick bits of animal flesh onto our plates with the tips of their curved knives until one realized the folly of such maneuvers and urged us to use the tongs.

Even more dangerous than these under-trained Brazilian cowboy impersonators with sharp objects was the food. The meal starts innocently enough with a collection of mostly bland appetizers: Brazilian breads, polenta topped with marinara, and mushy fried banana. One of the features of the Brazilian grill house is the all-you-can-eat salad bar loaded with a variety of plant life and hot and cold appetizers. Generally the stuff is incomparably fresh, better than just about any salad bar you'll find. (Which is not really saying much. I mean, who's got them anymore except for Smorga Bob's?)

Not here. The first hint of trouble was the bowl of lettuce that greets you at the start of the bar. It was riddled with badly browning leafy matter. The rest of the spread was little better: washed out, tasteless canned black olives; insipid baby corn; dry mashed potatoes curing and separating from their square stainless-steel vessel in perfect form; overcooked, mushy penne pasta capped with petrified cheese substance; and a pair of bowls of cubed canned ham and Swiss cheese, all in a place that's "totally unique."

The stuff was even more troublesome when passed between the lips. Marinated quail eggs, hardboiled musket balls speckled with seasonings, tasted like spackling. There was a time several years ago when grocery store-brand canned food was cheap but barely fit for human consumption. The chains have since discovered a huge niche by appreciably boosting the quality of these goods while keeping the price down, giving national brands a run for their dough.

Rodizio has somehow rediscovered these days of store-branded yore. Hearts of palm salad had woody fibrous logs with an off sharpness on the palate, like something was arousing them into fermentation. Artichoke bottom salad was little better. A salad composed of tapioca, olives, carrot, and dried beef was bland on one visit and riddled with grit on another. Everything else was yellow-bellied cuisine: watery crab salad; dull tuna salad; off-tasting pasta salad; soppy black beans; tasteless stroganoff; and rice that was fluffy but plugged with sodden frozen carrot cubes and shriveled peas. On an up note, the marinated mushrooms were quite good.

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