January 2003

Meat eaters sure to get their fill from the grill
By JOHN KESSLER 
Atlanta Journal-Constitution Dining Critc 
If you wanted to sample a Brazilian churrascaria -- one of those places where costumed waiters roam the dining room with speared roasts -- you used to have to go to Brazil. Then came the day when you could go to New York. Then, with the opening of Fogo de Chão -- Buckhead. 

And now? Pick your neighborhood -- Sandy Springs, Marietta, Dunwoody. The days of "Hi, I'm Chad, and I'll be your gaucho tonight" are nearly upon us. 

Brazilian steakhouses are in full swing because everyone who's ever taken fork to cow falls under their spell. What's not to love? First you gorge at a gourmet salad bar. Then you turn your signal card from red to green and -- Go, Dog. Go! -- the meat musketeers come speeding to your table, brandishing leg and loin. 

The latest churrascaria, Fire of Brazil, has opened on the outskirts of Perimeter Mall. And it seems to be (shall we say?) sincere flattery of Fogo de Chão. Everything from the open fire in the dining room to the jumbo asparagus in the salad bar takes a clue from Atlanta's best churrascaria. But even on its own merits, Fire of Brazil is a fun and worthwhile restaurant that needs to work out only a few kinks in cooking and service. 

Its location in a former Canyon Cafe is just about ideal. With the faux-adobe finish and gas fire leaping from a pit in the center of the room, the space feels like a barbecue (or perhaps a Disney Indian show) waiting to happen. The owners merely had to designate one side of the room as buffet central, invest in a supply of potent cachaça for the bar and bring in a churrasco grill from Brazil. Then they found enough bona fide Brazilians to put the whole operation in motion. Voilà -- instant churrascaria. Pretty good for a team whose other area businesses are the Checkered Parrot and Kazoo's -- Norcross bar/grills that encourage women to compete for prizes in skimpy bathing suits. 

Despite the manifest opportunities for spectacle, I fear, alas, there will be no bikini nights at Fire of Brazil. Think of the liability. And, besides, this restaurant takes its job of feeding people too seriously. 

Here's how the meal goes: You st with a cocktail. The bar serves (to my taste) an overly sweet caipirinha in a glass with a sugar-crusted rim. Then you head to the buffet -- a salad-bar-and-then-some with prosciutto, roasted peppers, tomato/mozzarella salad, hes of palm, smoked salmon, fresh mango and a host of other prepared dishes that change from day to day. You might find a loaf of potato salad the size of a small casket or a platter of beef carpaccio with capers scattered on top. It's a generous spread, even if it all seems a bit Fogo de Chão manqué -- picularly when you get to the processed, watery shrimp cocktail, the Krab salad and the lunch-deli soups. Resist the modest temptation. The meat boys are circling, and there's a rump roast with your name on it. 

Fire of Brazil
image

WILLIAM BERRY / Staff 
Racks of lamb (bottom) and beef (top) feel the heat of glowing coals at 
Fire of Brazil. 

RATINGTwo stars
-- Food: A vast array of good, sometimes very good, barbecued meats and cold buffet dishes. 
-- Service: Needs fine-tuning to better pace the meal and anticipate customers' needs. But also invariably nice and caring. 
-- Setting: A former Canyon Cafe, featuring a fire pit in the center of the room. 
-- Address, telephone: 
118 Perimeter Center West N.E., 770-551-4367.
-- Hours: Lunch: 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays; 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Sundays. Dinner: 5-10 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays; 5-11 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays; 4-10 p.m. Sundays.
-- Price range: Lunch, $22.50 ($14.50 salad bar only). Dinner, $39.50; children 5-12 half-price, under 5 free; $19.50 salad bar only.
-- Credit cards: American Express, MasterCard, Visa.
-- Recommended dishes: Picanha, baby beef, linguiça sausage, tropical peach Melba.
-- Vegetarian choices: There's no flame-roasted tofu on the spit, as people do come here to worship singed animal flesh. But you can make a nice meal from the salad bar and side dishes. 
-- Wine list: A variety available, but beer tastes best with all this salty meat. I wish the beer choices were more interesting. 
-- Full bar or wine/beer: Full bar.
-- Reservations: Yes.
-- Children: A great restaurant for children, and the staff is extra-attentive to the needs of kids. 
-- Parking: Valet parking at night. Self-parking day and night. 
-- Wheelchair access: Full. 
-- Smoking policy: No smoking.
-- Noise level: Moderate.
-- Patio: No. 
-- Takeout: No. 
OUR STAR RATING SYSTEM
Four stars Outstanding. Sets the standard for fine dining in the region.
Three stars Excellent. One of the best in the Atlanta area.
Two stars Very good. Merits a drive if you're looking for this kind of dining. 
One star Good. A worthy addition to its neighborhood, but food may be hit or miss.
Restaurants that do not meet these criteria may be rated Fair or Poor.
Fire of Brazil serves 15 cuts of beef, pork, lamb, chicken and sweet linguiça sausage. And they don't skimp on the good stuff. I'll sheepishly admit to accepting thirds of the beef tenderloin cooked to medium-rare/medium -- the point where it is firm but releases its juices. The leg of lamb is also terrific, and something identified as "baby beef" is a tasty morsel charred all around. 

Typical Brazilian beef cuts include picanha, a rump steak folded inside its fat cap into a taut U, and fraldinha, the elongated bottom sirloin. Once you begin consuming vast quantities of meat, a waiter scurries off to fetch an array of side dishes, ranging from rice and beans, to potatoes, fried yucca and fried bananas. There are also a couple of mild, forgettable sauces. Something with some more zip and spice would be welcome. 

It's a good show. And yet this operation is dogged by two persistent problems. First, the staff rarely anticipates the customers' needs. It isn't just a matter of the beverages they don't refill or the dirty dishes they don't clear. It's that they don't bring fresh plates when you want your salads removed or when too many uneaten gnarly bits st piling up. They just heap more and more on you. I, for one, need to believe that I'm having a civilized meal rather than my turn at the trough, even if it is a necessary fiction. 

The other problem is that the kitchen will send out too much well-cooked meat. On a busy weekend night, there's no problem. The flesh comes off the grill at such an alarming pace that you should have no trouble finding the level of doneness that best suits you on any given skewer. But during a slow lunch service, it was crispy critters all around. I finally told a gaucho that I wanted (for my $22.50) one slice of picanha that was still pink. He immediately had a fresh cut put on the rotisserie for me and then rushed to the table. Of course it was nearly raw (I think there must still be a recently de-rumped cow wandering around Dunwoody), but we did find one edge that qualified as medium-rare. Delicious.

There are some creamy desserts to be had at meal's end -- everything from a tasty peach Melba (made with coconut ice cream, canned peaches and raspberry sauce) to a papaya mousse. I'm happy with an excellent espresso and a moment's pause. Talk about fire in the belly. 

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