Igor's eyes widened when the rare rib eyes stopped by our table. At Nelore Churrascaria, the new Brazilian steak house on Montrose, waiters in gaucho outfits parade around the restaurant with hot, freshly grilled meats on swords. "Sure, I'll try some of that," he said. And the guy in the puffy pants quickly carved him off a slice. Four different kinds of meat were already stacked up on Igor's plate, but it was the first time he had ever been to a Brazilian steak house, and he was afraid of missing something.
Meat lust is not pretty. But I suspect it grips all true carnivores on their first visit to a churrascaria. All that hot, dripping, bloody beefsteak, shimmering sausage and crusty tenderloin sends a steak aficionado into a frenzy of overordering. I know, I've been there. The first word of Portuguese you need to learn in order to optimize your churrascaria experience is não.
Actually, they provide you with a little stop sign that says it for you. There's a coaster beside every diner that can be flipped to the green side or the red side, signaling the servers when to bring on the roast beast and when to give you a break. But sometimes, when the smell of steak is in the air, it's hard to flip it over to red and rein yourself in.
Most people hit the salad bar first and then get a clean plate for meat and starches before turning the coaster from red to green. I'm usually the first to go green, because I like to eat the meat on the same plate with the roasted red peppers, marinated onions and pico de gallo. I generally skip the starches. I'm not on the Atkins diet or anything, but why fill up on mashed potatoes when there are so many kinds of meat to sample?
The thing to remember is that you have plenty of time. The meats aren't going anywhere. The swords on which the meat is displayed fit into a rotating holder that turns them in front of a flaming grill. The gauchos are continuously trading out the swords so that the meat they're walking around with is always hot off the grill.
Nelore serves 11 varieties of meat every day. In two visits, I tried every one. With the exception of the run-of-the-mill pork sausage, they ranged from excellent to spectacular.
No. 1 on my hot-meat hit parade is the rib eye, which Nelore calls its signature steak. The well-marbled cut is ideally suited to the simple scorching technique employed there. The steaks are folded over into a curious C shape to fit on the sword. The outside slice is inevitably a little well done, and the slice that follows is gloriously rare. If you like it only well done or rare, they can take care of you, but it's traditional to eat a little bit of each.
Igor instantly got the hang of mixing well-done and very rare meats without any prompting. It's just like ordering the "in and out" mix of juicy interior slices and crusty outside chunks of brisket at Thelma's Barbecue, he observed.
Igor's favorite was the garlicky leg of lamb. It's one of the best examples of grilled lamb I've tasted. I was also an enthusiastic consumer of Nelore's beef tenderloin, a full length of filet that's so tender it melts in your mouth. Top sirloins squished onto the swords and flavored with salt, pepper and fire rounded out my choice of premium cuts. Also among my top picks were the garlic steaks, individual rectangular portions of medium-rare steak seasoned with garlic and wrapped in bacon that slide right off the sword onto your plate.
The bottom sirloin was the most surprising of the beef choices. At first, I was tempted to send away the gaucho with the well-done meat. But on closer inspection, the porous texture of the well-marbled cut looked remarkably similar to that of barbecued beef short rib. So I tried some. It was falling-apart tender and juicy, reminding me of the fatty end of a good barbecued brisket. I didn't like the bacon-wrapped filet mignons as much as the other cuts of beef, because I found them overtender to the point of mushiness. But my female dining companions liked them for the same reason.
The baby-back ribs were an excellent accompaniment to the spicy black beans and boiled bananas served at Nelore's salad and vegetable bar. The chicken breasts wrapped in bacon and served alongside the filet mignon were fabulously juicy on my first visit and dried out on the second. But the crunchy-skinned grilled chicken legs were without a doubt the best I have ever tasted.
When the owner came around to our table to see how everything was, I asked if his name was Nelore. "No," he said with a laugh. I realized that it was a bit of an insult when he explained that, in fact, Nelore is the name of a humpbacked, long-eared Brazilian breed of beef cattle descended from Indian Brahman stock.
The owner's name is Airton DeMoraes, and he worked for Fogo de Chão for 17 years before going out on his own. He has been in Houston for six years. A native of southern Brazil, he likes Brazil's chances in this year's World Cup. I would have asked him more about the Nelore beef, but I saw a Certified Angus beef truck pull up to the restaurant while I was standing in the driveway, so I didn't bother.
With its wood floors, stone fireplace and cozy porch, the atmosphere of Nelore Churrascaria is much more intimate than the dining-hall expanse of Fogo de Chão. "I didn't realize it was so upscale," Igor said, looking around. "Are all churrascarias this fancy?"
"In the big cities of Brazil, they are usually pretty nice. But out in the country, they can get real rustic," said our tablemate, Houston photographer Peter Yenne. Yenne lived in Brazil for some years and has traveled across much of the rest of South America.
On a recent visit to Brazil, I noticed the same dichotomy. At a sleek churrascaria called Porcão in the fashionable Ipanema section of Rio de Janeiro, I feasted at one of the largest salad bars I have ever seen -- if you can call a buffet line loaded with seafood, ceviche, antipasti and pasta, as well as cold vegetables, a salad bar.
The sizzling grilled meats we were served in Ipanema were more or less identical to the ones we got at a simple roadside churrascaria in a beach resort town north of Salvador da Bahia. And with the exception of a couple of cuts, they were pretty close to what you will find at Nelore.
The biggest differences between churrascarias, ironically enough, is in the selection of non-meats. At the beachside churrascaria in Bahia, we sat at picnic tables and ordered salads from a short menu. Fogo de Chão isn't quite up to the dazzling standards of Porcão in Ipanema, but it does have an extensive array of vegetables and starches.
The salad bar at Nelore is the restaurant's only weakness. In fact, it barely qualifies as a salad bar by the standard American definition. One of my dining companions pointed this out to the management on our first visit. He was astonished by the fact that the salad bar didn't offer any lettuce. There were containers of salad dressing, sliced tomatoes, roasted peppers, hearts of palm, cold asparagus spears and marinated onions, but there was no iceberg, romaine or fresh spinach available. So how were you supposed to make a salad?
The hostess who had asked how everything was promised my companion there would be lettuce the next time we visited. On my second visit, there still wasn't any lettuce.
"It's really more like an antipasti bar," Yenne explained. "There are a lot of Italians in South America, and this is typically the way they eat cold vegetables." Think of Nelore's salad bar as an Italian cold vegetable selection and you won't be disappointed. "I'll take hearts of palm and asparagus over lettuce any day," Yenne said. Chafing dishes filled with mashed potatoes, polenta, black beans, cooked bananas and some pasta selections also can be found flanking Nelore's salad bar.
I asked Yenne if he had ever seen chimichurri sauce like the kind served at Nelore. He tasted the tomato-and-vinegar-flavored sauce and said he thought it was a pretty common Brazilian version. When I think of chimichurri sauce, it's the parsley, olive oil and garlic pesto of Argentina that comes to mind. And I much prefer it with my steaks.
If Nelore offered Argentine chimichurri and a couple of leaves of lettuce, I'd have absolutely nothing to complain about. No, it isn't the first churrascaria in Houston, but the granddaddy of the genre, Fogo de Chão, is located on Westheimer near Fondren, far beyond the ancestral hunting grounds of die-hard Inner Loopers. Nelore is a pared-down version of a Brazilian steak house that's perfectly suited to its cozy, close-in location. And that's a Montrose meat lover's dream come true.
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