Soul Food

: At Rafain Brazilian Churrascaria, all you can eat is less than you think

If bound to commit one of the seven deadly sins, a trespasser might as well have a bit of fun while engaged in the act. Lust should be directed at, say, the Victoria's Secret catalog, not the Sears girdle section. Best to spend sloth in front of a TV on some dreary football weekend.

Which brings us to gluttony.

Over and over we hear that portions served at American restaurants are dangerously large, that there's a direct correlation between all-you-can-eat buffets or super-sized meals and demand for Sansabelt slacks. In theological terms, stuffing oneself coarsens the mind, eroding the powers of self-control and, sadly, sobriety. A surefire ticket to the infernal regions, in other words.

Have a cow. And a pig. And maybe a couple of chickens. The price is all the same.
Tom Jenkins
Have a cow. And a pig. And maybe a couple of chickens. The price is all the same.

Which brings us back to the wages of sin. Meat-coma palaces such as Rafain Brazilian Churrascariacertainly draw scorn from above. For those unfamiliar with the churrascaria concept, just think of young Texans decked in fanciful gaucho costumes streaming past your table toting skewers of beef, pork, lamb and chicken. Tip a cardboard disc to the green side, and they pause to carve off a hunk or two. The parade is constant: filet mignon, lamb chops, greasy sausages and long cuts of picanha, a Brazilian sirloin specialty--16 different options. It slows only when the sated diner pops a few buttons and flicks the disc over to the red side. Even the salad bar invites overindulgence. Yet after three visits to the North Dallas spot, we're convinced the prospect of an eternity of brimstone and accordion music (hey, everyone harbors their own version of hell) is ill-balanced by unending platefuls of charred meat.

Take, for example, pork loin sliced tableside by pseudo-South American cowboys. What pleasure comes from dulling one's molars on a dry, chewy, overcooked and utterly flavorless strip of white meat? Tough hunks of well-done filet mignon wrapped in bacon failed to muster enough character to overcome the potent smoky, salty outer skin. The same fate befell arid chicken covered by another piece of sodium-laced bacon.

During our second visit a companion took note of a towelette pack and issued the following endorsement: "That's the most moist thing on the table."

Bob Wills said in the '40s hit "Roly Poly," "As long as you can chew it, it's OK." But there's a trick to dining at a churrascaria concept, to avoiding such barren, leathery pieces. Sure, waitstaff often trot around with spikes of parched meat apparently draped over the heat far too long. Ask them for something cooked to your liking--rare, say, or medium rare--and they'll comply as quickly as possible. Filet mignon with a warm red center exuded salt on one visit. Another time, however, it was tender and flavorful, with only a flicker of washed-out sodium to enliven taste buds. Traditional picanha, rubbed with coarse salt and tossed on the grill, is supple and mild, with a slightly brackish residue of seasoning. Rafain also serves the specialty patted with good, bitter garlic or a spicy mixture more subtle and dense than fiery.

Another tip: Limit your intake to three or four different cuts. By the fifth or sixth variation drenched in salt and oozing natural juices, your mouth begins to feel like you forced it into an ill-advised dip into the Houston shipping channel. The slag of grease and brine coating the tongue dulls your ability to distinguish anything else.

And there are several items worth a try. Sausage links start with a mild, herbal arabesque flitting above an incoherent, dripping grind followed by the hectic frenzied kick of pepper. Flank steak, a tough piece of meat on most occasions, emerges from the fire with a biting char and moist interior. And it's a substantial slice, deep red bordered by a crusty black shell. The pork ribs are a satisfying, messy option that fleck easily from the bone and rely on rich, natural flavors rather than a bold sauce for appeal. Over three visits, however, lamb chops stood out for their consistent tenderness and musty, meaty taste enhanced by a gentle dusting of salt (always salt)--so good you want to strip the bones clean.

Service borders on outstanding, which seems surprising in a room full of jeans, hooded sweatshirts and droll techies sporting electronic growths on one ear. Waitstaff walk through traditional wine presentation smoothly (decent selection of reasonably priced bottles, by the way) and take care of the little things without fanfare. We noticed them covering coats of whatever quality with cloth to prevent tableside splatter from soiling the garments. In particular, we enjoyed the cute and personable waitress from--of all places--Brazil. For a restaurant focused on the presentation of skewered meat in rapid succession, it's an amiable, well-trained staff.

One final trick: Wander over to the salad bar before touching the red and green cardboard switch, but keep your expectations to a minimum. Most of the offerings are commonplace, at best. Grilled items carry little intensity; artichoke hearts resemble the canned stuff. Mild cheeses, a bland mozzarella salad, tepid stroganoff and cold sliced ham--nothing really stands out. Well, the salad featuring mini shrimp and hearts of palm waves at complexity from a distance, and kalamata olives seem fine. Otherwise...

The restaurant operates on a fixed-price model. The meat-coma portion, along with salad bar, a side of modest mashed potatoes and sweet, palate-cleansing fried bananas, runs $34.95, no matter how much you choose to ingest. Such a system invites blind culinary avarice: the scarfing of red and white meat, bits of green things and slabs of cheese without concern for artistic flair (or lack thereof). Another buffet area, crowded with desserts, runs an additional $6.95 for more all-you-can-eat abandon. Although created in-house--an ambitious endeavor--most desserts deserve only a passing glance. There was a dust-dry mocha hazelnut torte, flan lacking in subtlety, watery and unimpressive rice pudding, and such. Passion fruit and chocolate mousse should tease the palate with an ethereal double shot, not sit lifeless on the plate like a tart pudding. It's all so anticlimactic until one encounters a surprising and stunning sweet pear in red wine. Tannic depth mingles with natural fruit into something rich and challenging, a perfect dish to savor with a bitter cup of coffee.

Now back to the point. If eternal damnation or a day of bellyaching because, well, your belly aches from an overdose of sodium and roasted muscle tissue are the only payoffs for a night of indulgence, is Rafain worth the cost? Up to you, really.

We appreciate Rafain's courteous service, the welcoming and friendly manner of each staff member. There's something to the understated elegance of the space. And once you learn a few tricks, the food easily meets the relaxed standards of Dallas diners. But we don't sell our culinary souls that cheap. One or two memorable cuts, several equal to those served in a mid-range steak house, a salad bar wasteland--no, gluttony should at least be fun.

And $34.95 doled out for prime beef at Al Biernat's or Bob's or Del Frisco's or any other upscale steak house will accomplish that rather nicely. 18010 Dallas Parkway, 972-733-1110. Open 5 p.m.-11 p.m. Monday-Saturday, 4 p.m.-9 p.m. Sunday. $$$

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