My vegetarian lunch companion is astonished. There are 41 gorgeously decorated plates on the salad bar at Avenida Paulista Churrascaria, the new Brazilian steak house on Westheimer. And the bread basket contains the addictive Brazilian cheese bread called pão de queijo, along with some steaming fried bananas.
The main attraction at churrascarias is usually the parade of grilled meats on skewers brought to your table by servers who carve them tableside. At Avenida Paulista, an oversize coin sits on the table in front of you; the red side means go away, and the green side calls the carvers to descend upon you. As many as a dozen cuts of beef, lamb, pork and poultry might be offered at the same time. A fixed price of $43 buys all the meat you can eat and unlimited access to the salad bar.
The salad bar is also available at a reduced price all by itself. That's why I brought my friend here. Avenida Paulista's salad bar is so impressive, I wondered if the restaurant might become a vegetarian destination.
Avenida Paulista Churrascaria
Salad bar and grilled vegetables (dinner): $22
Salad bar and grilled vegetables (lunch): $17
Avenida Paulista, which is named after the avenue that serves as the "Wall Street" of São Paulo, seeks to distinguish itself from other South American steak houses by offering a wider variety of foods in a more elegant setting. The restaurant's decor recalls the splendor of São Paulo in the coffee-baron era of the 1920s. The art deco posters, lustrous two-tone woodwork and sleek lines of the dining rooms re-create the sort of retro-modern chic associated with steamships and speakeasies.
And there's no denying that Avenida Paulista offers a wide variety of foods. The roving servers who carve grilled items at your table have sizzling portobello mushrooms, hot pineapples and charred peppers in addition to the meat and seafood. I'm not really sure that offering a lot of red meat substitutes such as scallops wrapped in bacon or grilled chicken thighs is going to get you anywhere in beef-loving Houston. But, aside from the meats, Avenida Paulista Churrascaria has a truly awesome selection of salads.
We stroll around the handsome wooden structure that houses the salad bar, admiring the presentations. That glass shelf that serves as a sneeze guard also holds bottles of fine olive oils, walnut oil, hazelnut oil and infused vinegars. Hidden beneath the shelf supports, small light fixtures illuminate the plates of fruits and vegetables so they seem to glow. We stop to marvel at an intensely purple sliced beet salad garnished with a pink orchid sitting beside a giant bowl of bright red watermelon slices.
Shaved asparagus spears, marinated artichokes and hearts of palm vie for our attention, while condiments and toppings like imported olives, pine nuts, capers and garlic croutons demand to be spooned over everything. From a well-stocked cheese platter, my vegetarian companion cuts a generous slice of Huntsman English cheese, with alternating layers of double Gloucester and Stilton blue. Beside that she spoons a salad composed of little balls of buffalo mozzarella and cherry tomatoes, tossed in a basil-flecked vinaigrette.
A fanned array of romaine leaves is flanked by a bowl of prepared Caesar salad, and when we stop to consider it, a waiter rushes over and offers to make some more fresh. I happily consent. Meanwhile, I load up on the snow peas, which are mixed with chunks of salmon. My friend skips that one, as well as the orzo salad, which is made with the melon-seed-shaped pasta tossed with roasted peppers and salmon chunks. There's also a whole platter of roasted salmon on the salad bar for fish lovers.
While the usual drill is to eat a plate of greenery and then get a fresh plate for meat and potatoes, I flip my coin over as soon as we sit down. To my tablemate's chagrin, I'm quickly rewarded when a sizzling hangar steak on a stick appears at our table, followed by a sirloin. I heap the fresh sliced meat on top of the lettuce. Hot steak with cold salad is one of my favorites.
"That's the best salad bar I've ever seen," says the vegetarian.
Churrascaria is Portuguese for a place that serves churrasco. Literally, churrasco means barbecue and refers to beef cooked on skewers over an open fire, a style that originated among the gauchos of Brazil. But churrasco means other things in other parts of Latin America.
In Houston, we associate the term with the Cordúa family's Churrascos restaurants, the first of which opened in 1988. Though billed as South American steak houses, they're actually modeled on the "El Churrasco" chain of restaurants in the Cordúas' hometown of Managua, Nicaragua, where beef filet steaks are carved in a distinctive "butterfly" fashion and served with the South American steak sauce called chimichurri.
A few years ago, two new restaurants, Rodizio Grill and Fogo de Chão, which were both founded by Brazilians, brought a different, more authentically gaucho version of churrasco to Houston. Fogo de Chão means "fire on the ground," a description of the primitive barbecue pit once used. Rodizio means "rotating," which refers to the rotisserie on which the meat is cooked and to the "rotation" of meats constantly coming to your table.
The beauty of the concept from a restaurant-management point of view is that there are no individual orders to get straight, no tickets to keep track of, no disputes about the bill and never a long wait for service. Diners simply sit down and dig in.
Brazilian churrascarias have quickly gained a loyal following among meat lovers. Instead of the huge steak you get at an American steak house, here you can sample a little filet mignon, a little rare rump roast, some hangar steak and a couple of lamb chops. And the price tag is considerably less than you end up paying at a steak house, once they finish gouging you for the à la carte salad and family-style orders of onion rings and creamed spinach.
Fogo de Chão (8250 Westheimer, 713-978-6500) charges $41.50 a head. Rodizio Grill, formerly located at 5851 Westheimer, charged $18 per person when it first opened. The Rodizio space is now occupied by Avenida Paulista, which charges $43 for a full meal.
One of Avenida Paulista's owners is Steve Oldham, who was also one of two American partners in the Rodizio chain. Rodizio opened churrascarias in several American cities beginning in the mid-1990s. The chain filed for bankruptcy in 2002. Oldham left the company in 1999 and opened another chain of churrascarias in Colorado, New Mexico and Utah under the name Tucanos Brazilian Grill. The Tucanos chain charges $17 per person.
The Houston Rodizio location, which was still breaking even when the chain went under, finally closed in February of last year. Oldham got in touch with the landlord to try to negotiate a new deal. But he didn't think Tucanos was the right concept for the high-dollar Galleria neighborhood. In fact, he believed that the reason Rodizio failed in Houston is that the chain misjudged the market and sacrificed quality in order to lower prices.
The huge dining room at Fogo de Chão was packed on a recent Saturday night when I stopped by for dinner with five fellow diners. The noise level was high, and the tables seemed a little too close together. But those distractions were quickly forgotten by the three men and one of the women in the group, all carnivores mesmerized by the meat. We oohed the rare top sirloin and aahed the long strips cut off a whole filet mignon. And all four went wild for the picanha, a juicy rump steak that the waiter described as the restaurant's signature cut. The rare lamb chops were so good, I couldn't resist picking mine up and eating them off the bone.
Six of us drank two bottles of Don Melchor, a premium Chilean Cabernet with a rich cigar-box aroma and a beautiful dried-fruit finish. We gladly paid more than $100 a bottle for the wine after admiring the temperature-controlled storage room from behind a glass wall in the bar. What a pleasure to buy an expensive bottle of wine and actually get what you're paying for. In Houston restaurants that don't store their wines at proper temperatures, I recommend you drink the beer.
I was glowing about Fogo de Chão a few days later when one of my other dining companions, a woman with a limited interest in red meat, expressed a different memory of the experience. With its huge, open dining room and mobbed salad-bar buffet, Fogo de Chão reminded her of a more expensive version of Ryan's Family Steak House, she said. We had also eaten dinner together at Avenida Paulista on a previous occasion. She thought Avenida Paulista was far more elegant, with much better food. But after further discussion, it turned out to be the salad bar that had made such an impression on her.
It's interesting that my female friend liked Avenida Paulista so much more. I'm willing to bet that appealing to women and couples is part of this churrascaria's marketing plan. Unfortunately, the meat I sampled during two visits to Avenida Paulista Churrascaria wasn't quite as good as what I had at Fogo de Chão. The differences are subtle. Both restaurants serve meat seasoned with just a hint of rock salt and cooked on a rotisserie by an open fire. This kind of cooking imparts an elemental flavor to meat that reminds many Texans of barbecue. The crowds at Fogo de Chão ensure that large cuts of meat are constantly being cooked fresh, so they're always rare in the middle and never dried out.
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With only a month in business, Avenida Paulista doesn't have enough diners ordering meat at the same time, so too many cuts come to the table medium well. At lunchtime, with less than ten customers in the restaurant, the servers are carrying skewers with pieces of sirloin so tiny, they look like individual shish kebabs.
But don't be discouraged. When Avenida Paulista hits its stride, it promises to become the odds-on favorite in the churrascaria race. The smaller, more elegant dining rooms are much more comfortable than those of its competitor down the street. And as soon as the crowds show up, as they surely will, the kitchen will get a chance to turn out meat and seafood on par with the spectacular salad-bar offerings.
After our lunch, I ask my vegetarian friend if she would come back to Avenida Paulista just for the salad bar. She says that if she does, it will be with a party of fellow vegetarians. "It's gross to have meat being sliced in front of your face," she says.
Funny, that's the part I like the best.