Fogo de Chao sticks it to the steakhouse concept
On my first visit to Fogo de Chão, I was like Augustus Gloop in the chocolate factory — set loose in Wonka's main room, eyes like saucers, jittery with excitement and trying desperately to shove everything into my mouth that would fit. And each time I half-cleaned a plate, some Brazilian Oompa Loompa in tall gaucho boots, with slicked-back hair and a colorful belt, was at my side offering more. I wasn't going to say no. I couldn't. And the funny thing was, I hadn't even felt like eating when I'd first stepped out of the cold and in through the massive front doors. This was a chore. Was work. At least for the first five minutes or so. After that, it was something else entirely.
Fogo de Chão is not a place that any mortal man could visit with any regularity while actually remaining mortal, without ending up just flat dead from a meat overdose. Zeus, perhaps, could eat here three times in a week. James Beard or Escoffier could've probably managed four in their portly heydays. Me? I'd be a headline, baby. All caps: NOT TERRIBLY FAMOUS FOOD WRITER FOUND DEAD ON WYNKOOP STREET. Details would include the blood and flan on my chin, the lamb chops found stuffed in my pockets, the odor of caipirinhas on my breath, and the smile that couldn't be removed but by the intervention of a team of internationally famous embalmers.
A Brazilian churrascaria with fine-dining aspirations and service that's a marked change from the standard "Hey, you still hungry, dude?" rap of the Denver service professional, Fogo de Chão is that good. Stunningly good. All the little details — gleaming, branded cutlery with serious weight, artfully designed glassware, an OCD sense of freshness and cleanliness that borders on clinical — are given their proper attention, handled by a system that is both comfortably engaging and almost military in its precision, then obscured behind a screen of smiles and booze and meat so that, to the regular diner (meaning someone who's not timing the change-outs on the salad bar or checking the color of the napkins — someone who's not me, in other words), it all seems effortless, genuine and flawless. That's an amazing trick. The machinery involved in keeping any restaurant running smoothly is formidable. Making it invisible is the goal of every smart operator, a goal only a few achieve. But the folks behind Fogo de Chão have the whole smoke-and-mirrors aspect of the business nailed — blinding everyone on the floor with skewered meat and liquor and excess, then charming them with staffers that either honestly care about every single customer who walks through the doors (and care to the point of memorizing their names and preferences and almost telepathically anticipating any and every fleeting want) or are all the best actors and actresses to come out of Denver since Don Cheadle.
Denver's Fogo de Chão is part of an intercontinental chain owned by two brothers, Jair and Arri Coser, who started out with a Brazilian concept — the cowboy churrasco meal, which involves big hunks of meat on skewers, all washed down with cachaca-heavy cocktails or gallons of cold beer — and put it in a fine-dining framework with the addition of liveried servers, salad bars, bottles of wine and, you know, plates and stuff. They expanded the concept from Brazil to the United States in 1996, when an outpost opened in Dallas. Denver's Fogo de Chão debuted in July, in a brand-new structure on the tail end of Wynkoop Street with a beautiful and understated buildout that's somewhat steakhouse-generic (lots of polished, dark wood, widely spaced tables and a nicely appointed bar up front flanked by a comfortable lounge and fireplace) but keeps the attention focused on the mountains of meat on the table. Before the economy went in the tank, the company was reporting revenues in the $100 million range with just twenty or so locations, including sixteen in this country, an amazing number despite — or perhaps because of — the somewhat counterintuitive all-you-can-eat concept.
Under the rules of the house, they will keep bringing you (read: me, again) hunks of costela de porco, filet mignon and linguica sausage for as long as you can remain upright and breathing at your table. They will allow you to eat as much dry-cured pork and hearts of palm and balls of herbed mozzarella and potato salad from the salad bar as you can without even once sending some burly Brazilian out onto the floor to submarine-tackle your waddling, overstuffed ass and hustle you out the back. And while the price of all this luxurious intemperance isn't cheap, it isn't precisely expensive, either — at least not by steakhouse standards. Dinner for two will probably set you back a hundred bucks, but I've dropped twice that at steakhouses in this town and left disappointed. At Fogo, I left wanting only a larger pair of pants and maybe some kind of dolly service where an employee could just strap me down and wheel my bloated, meat-stuffed carcass back to my car.
I spent two hours at Fogo de Chão on that first visit, and I didn't miss anything — except the desserts, and I made up for that with seconds on some things. I made a fair assault on the salad bar that stands as a central fixture in the dining room, and drank the bar's best specialties. And I ate meat. Lots and lots of meat. I ate cordeiro — leg of lamb, delicately herbed, sliced off the skewer and straight onto my plate. I chased it with more lamb: tiny little double-cut chops artfully guided to my plate from the tip of a meat-man's sword, done a perfect medium rare, tasting powerfully lamby and as delicious as any chops I'd find anywhere in the city, plated over their mounds of white-bean purée, touched with a splash of red wine demi, crowned with a sprig of parsley. Kept company only by the scraps and tatters of the meats that'd come before them, they were lovely chops — brooking no distraction, needing nothing to prop them up. I ate chicken legs — tiny things, docked at the bone and ideally rotisserie-cooked so that the skin crisped and the meat remained juicy — and then ate more chicken, breast now, this time wrapped in bacon, which made it just about as perfect as anything wrapped in bacon ought to be.
Just about everything that comes off the skewers at Fogo is small: a slice of this, two or three bites of that. And this is where a man like me — an intemperate soul with impulse-control issues, incapable of saying no to anything that sounds like it might be even a little bit fun — goes wrong. How can you say no to a tiny chicken leg, all golden and perfect and leaking juice down the gutter of the meat-man's espeto, when it is offered with a high-rent drug pusher's smile? No matter how full you are becoming, when the man carrying the leg of lamb comes to the table and offers you — you, personally — another thin slice of perfectly pink and medium rare baby sheep, smelling of flesh and rosemary, because it just came from the kitchen and he remembered that you liked the lamb the first time around, how can you do anything but shrug, nod and knuckle your plate in his direction? After all, one more hit of the good stuff never hurts. One more tiny taste can't possibly be the one that puts you over the edge and makes you pull a Mr. Creosote right there in the middle of the dining room. Thus did I eat small, explosively flavorful pork sausages lined up like chubby little fingers on a sword, then roasted filet mignon and roasted filet mignon wrapped in bacon and filet mignon strongly seasoned with garlic and touched with just a hint of onion — all three delicious but also different-tasting, cooked at different speeds, to different temperatures, all three terribly tempting to a man incapable of saying no.
"Medium well, yes?" asked the server bearing the sword of garlic beef to Laura's side of the table. She'd asked earlier for a slice of fraldinha (bottom-cut sirloin) done a bit on the dark side, and that preference had been transmitted to the entire serving staff — the pretty girl at the table in the back would prefer to keep the blood off her lips, please.
"Tell me what's better than this," Laura said. "Better than handsome young Brazilian men smiling and bringing me cocktails and meat on a stick."
I couldn't come up with a thing.
We ate lombo (chunks of tender pork loin, perfectly cooked and crusted in parmesan) and curls of picanha (prime sirloin) seasoned only with sea salt.
"Bacon-wrapped beef with garlic?"
"Lamb chops, sir?"
How could I say no?
I'd turned my little red light/green light card to red long before, indicating that I really thought I should quit eating, but the skewers didn't stop coming. And each one was presented as though it was something special that the chef in the back had prepared just for me, just for Laura.
"You must try this. Are you full? Shall I clear your plate?"
No. Of course not. Bring it on.
The only cut I didn't love was the beef rib, which was so thoroughly cooked it had no texture left. But more leg of lamb, as well as another long, thick slab of medium-rare alcatra (top sirloin) shaved off the outside of what had to be a three-pound cut, atoned for that sin.
A meal at Fogo comes with sides: little squares of fried polenta topped with shredded parmesan, fried bananas, mashed potatoes with garlic and cheese, puffy little bites of cheese popover that were excellent but took up too much digestive real estate once the meat began arriving. The side plates were refreshed constantly, with a fresh one brought whenever the portion began to dip dangerously toward half full. The salad bar got the same treatment; I watched servers exchange the greens, bring out new plates of fresh tomatoes and peppers, precisely arrayed trays of cured meats and cheeses, after a single customer had gone through the line. Nothing ever looked as though it had been touched by any hands other than our own. The illusion was that ours was the only table, we were the only customers, and every effort of the staff was being turned toward our every comfort and desire.
That's powerful restaurant juju when you get it right, disastrously obsequious when you get it wrong. There's something in our culture, in today's mindset, that regards too much service as somehow shameful. A few very specific situations exist – at hotels, spas, dinners with sultans and kings – where being coddled, being not just seen and served but truly taken care of, seems appropriate. But in any standard, upscale restaurant environment, servers have a narrow line to walk, striking a dangerous bargain between too little (which can seem haughty or cold) and too much (which will quickly become smothering and uncomfortable). Fogo de Chão's floor staff walks that line with the combined and consummate grace of a dancer, anticipating needs (a different colored napkin so as not to leave white lint on black trousers, a quick change of plates or another drink when the glut of food seems approaching the verge of overwhelming) and operating not as individual servers seeing to individual tables, but as a single service organism whose sole duty is the care of all those on its floor.
In a town like Denver, which has always struggled with the balance between Western casualness and continental fine-dining formality, this display of refinement was shocking. And while I did not love every single thing that passed my lips — the polenta, for example, was tough and slightly dry, the hearts of palm lacking texture — I had the feeling that, were I to complain about the least thing, the problem would not just be solved, but eliminated with swift and draconian efficiency; made not just better, but to not exist at all, wiped clean from history and memory by another onslaught of young men bearing skewered meat and caipirinhas.
There is nothing like being cared for to leave you stupid with pleasure. There is nothing like being made welcome to make you want to return. Were I Zeus or Escoffier, I would have made my way back to Fogo de Chão the next night — to dine again off the bounty of the Coser brothers' vision, folded into the smooth, seamless hum of a machine built to serve, to provide both the comfort of attention and many, many pounds of meat.
As it is, though, I am just a normal man. So I waited two days to return. And this time, I wore my big-boy pants.
To see more of Fogo de Chao, go to westword.com/slideshow. For more South American restaurants, see page xx.
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