Let the Turks have their shish kebab, Indonesians their saté. I raise my fork for churrasco, Brazil’s version of barbecue. Churrasco makes a prodigious meal and an evening’s entertainment. Churrasco (pronounced "shoe-hra-skoo") is served with belt-loosening largesse by a ceremonious procession of waiters bearing swordlike spits to carve at your table. And no one does it better than Marius Fontana.
Marius is the owner of three upscale churrascarias (grills) in Rio de Janeiro. You’d never guess it to meet him. Tasseled loafers. Designer jeans. Meticulously combed shoulder-length hair. He looks more like a movie star than a pit jockey. But ask a Carioca (a Rio resident) where to go for churrasco and you’re almost sure to be told Marius. The night I arrived at his restaurant in the fashionable Ipanema district, the 400 seats were packed.
Churrasco is a method of cooking, but it’s also a way of life. This rustic style of eating originated in Brazil’s cattle country, Rio Grande do Sul. The traditional cooking equipment for churrasco was simple enough: an open fire, a sword for skewering meats, and a razor-sharp knife for carving them. The seasonings were even simpler: coarse sea salt and fresh air. For the better part of four centuries the cowboys of southern Brazil enjoyed churrasco in this fashion.
More recently, churrasco spread from Rio Grande to the rest of Brazil. As it moved north, it evolved from rustic cookout to a culinary extravaganza. Baptisms, birthdays, sporting events, even political rallies are celebrated over churrasco. Today, some of the fanciest restaurants in Rio are churrascarias.
Consider Marius (the restaurant). The sleekly contemporary dining room boasts polished wood paneling, frosted glass partitions, brass rails, and coffered ceilings with recessed pin spots. It’s a long way from a cowboy campfire! So is the clientele, which includes an air-kissing crowd of moguls, movie stars, and tourists from three continents.
The large portions of a traditional churrasco have evolved into a curious display of conspicuous consumption. You’re not simply handed a cocktail menu. The waiter rolls a portable bar right to your table. The hors d’oeuvre course is nothing less than a personal buffet that includes pão de queijo (tiny steaming cheese buns), crisply fried manioc, hard-cooked quail eggs, and a dozen other Brazilian appetizers. Come time for the main course, well, all I can say is that it’s a good thing they supply you with the "sign."
The "sign" is a fixture at most Brazilian churrascarias. It enables you to control the pace of what is otherwise a relentless assault on your waistline. The miniature signpost at Marius comes with three panels: normal, lento ("slow"), and suspenso ("stop"). (Elsewhere, you may get a wheel with an arrow that points to the particular cut of meat you want more of or a placard that reads "stop.")
A squadron of waiters circulates through the dining room, each one bearing a different cut of meat. One staggers under the weight of whole spit-roasted prime rib. Others bear coils of linguiça (Portuguese sausage), picanha (spit-roasted sirloin), cupim (steer hump), chicken hearts, mint-glazed lamb kebabs-perhaps twenty different items in all. And as long as the "normal" sign is in place, each and every waiter will make a trip to your table. The only way to ward them off is to flip the sign to suspenso.
Each item arrives at the table sizzling hot off the grill. To learn how this amazing feat is achieved, I asked if I might visit the kitchen. Built into one wall is a giant stainless-steel rotisserie with motorized spits. The fatty cuts of meat are placed on the highest level, so that the melting fat bastes the leaner cuts roasting below. Ingenious. The waiters carry the spits to the dining room, carve off the cooked portion, then return the spits to the kitchen for more cooking.
A meal at a Brazilian churrascaria probably sounds like a relentlessly carnivorian experience. It is a relentlessly carnivorian experience, but Brazil’s churrascarias serve some pretty amazing seafood dishes as well-see Grilled Fish with Brazilian Garlic Marinade and Shrimp Kebabs with Bahian Peanut Sauce.
Whatever you order, I promise you won’t go hungry!
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