As the gauchos approach a table, they ask if you would like a bit of whatever it is they have on their skewer, which they carry with two hands: one holding the top, the other pressing a small metal drip cup against the tip. They set this cup on the table, and slice off a bit of meat, urging you to clutch the flapping flesh with your tongs as it's cut away from the skewer. The really amazing thing is that on some cuts, the gauchos will ask how you like your meat (rare, medium, or well) and will twirl the skewer to the appropriate spot and cut off a bit of meat with the appropriate hue.
The gauchos control every aspect of the meat's preparation--from its seasoning, to its placement on a special Brazilian grill designed to hold the skewers, to its removal and service. And how is the food overall? On one level, it's hard to get away from the fact that everything seems in service to this gaucho gimmick. A few cuts of meat were fairly good. The bottom sirloin was rich, juicy, and tender--if slightly chewy--with lots of hearty flavor. The lamb chops were fresh, tender, and silky with balanced, rich flavors. Fairly good, too, was the picanha that, with a thick ribbon of fat on the outer edge, was juicy and heartily flavorful.
But that's pretty much where it ends. Most of the meats are seasoned just with salt or imperceptibly light marinades that do little, if anything, to bring out the flavors. One preparation, a filet wrapped in bacon, was so overcooked and stringy that the only flavors in this swaddling nugget of meat were from the bacon strips. Skewers of chicken thighs--grilled to a nice golden brown--looked inviting. But they proved to be dry and almost flavorless. Covered with a crisp crust, the sausages presaged a welcome burst of rich taste, but the inside was dry, almost bland. The garlic meat--chunks of picanha in a garlic marinade--came packed with lots of lively flavors, but the tough, chewy texture proved stifling.
Other creations were little more than range food. The pork loin with cheese--pieces of pork sprinkled with parmesan--tasted like twine sprinkled with the dustings from a green can of cheese gratings from Kraft. The beef loin picked up that twine theme, substituting cheese with a layer of charred fat.
The salad bar, however, makes up for whatever miscues seem to infect the skewers. Everything on the table--from the romaine to the orange and yellow bell peppers to the tomatoes--was fresh and bright. In addition to the usual staples, there were some interesting additions like mozzarella balls; a bowl of whole, dried bacon slices; a rich, satiny sweet prosciutto; slices of a robust, lean salami seasoned with fennel; salsifies; large angled cuts of juicy, tender hearts of palm; fresh shiitake mushrooms in very light dressing that let the delicate, earthy tones of this mushroom shine through; even a fresh tabbouleh. Hot dishes included a nearly flavorless black bean mexido, beans thickened with flour; and rice carreteiro, a flavorful mixture of rice, dried beef, peppers, onions, and tomatoes.
And if all of this isn't enough, the gauchos also bring sides to your table, including little muffin-shaped nuggets of a puffy parmesan-cheese bread that is baked to order. These little things can be dangerously addictive and can easily kill your appetite for the skewer fare (maybe not such a bad idea). You also get moist, sweet fried bananas; creamy mashed potatoes with shredded mozzarella, cheddar, and scallions; and fried tapioca, which tastes like a big mealy french fry.
Fogo de Chao also has a modest wine list with mostly California selections, plus one from Argentina and four from Chile. I would have expected some Brazilian selections, especially since Southern Brazil, from which Fogo de Chao draws its inspiration, is the home of that country's thriving wine industry. Brazilian wine is not yet deemed world-class, but its absence on the list is unfortunate--like Star Canyon without Texas wine.