The New Fogo De Chão is a Shrine to Open Flame Brazilian Cooking
Growing up in a tiny village in the south of Brazil, Neimar Hensel and his brother looked forward to Sunday afternoons. “After church, we would come home and start a fire [for cooking].
It was the highlight of the weekend,” he says. The boys would help roast various cuts of meat, and then slice them for serving. “When we were young, we were each given a knife. My dad said, ‘This is not to cut with, but to create with.’”
That cultural love of fire-roasted meat, and the ceremony of carving and serving it, is writ large in the new Fogo de Chão restaurant that Hensel manages at the Plaza on Ponce. The lofty space with an open, flaming kitchen at one end is a veritable shrine to the Brazilian way of cooking beef, as well as pork, lamb, and chicken. Diners can order a la carte from the menu, but most opt for what is dubbed “The Churrasco Experience,” an open-ended parade of more than a dozen types of meat served by “gaucho chefs.”
The gaucho chefs explains Hensel, are each a specialist in the meat they bring to your table on a skewer. The flank steak gaucho chef, for example, cooks his (or her) flank steak in the kitchen’s flame-pit before marching it among the diners. At your behest, they will slice a piece, based on your preference for rare or well-done, which you then grab with tongs. “Certain meats are assigned to certain people,” says Hensel. “We train them how to work the grill.”
Diners who order the Churrasco Experience ($61) pace themselves with coaster-sized discs that are red on one side, and green on the other. Leave it green and the meat keeps coming, turn it red and the spigot stops. I had to go red when I saw I had a half dozen types of meat on my plate: Beef ribeye, spicy sausage, lamb picanha, pork ribs, filet mignon, and Wagyu New York strip.
That Wagyu was not part of the Churrasco Experience. It comes under the menu heading “Add an Indulgent Cut” and is really the top of the beef food chain. You can add either a Wagyu ribeye ($145 for 24 oz.), a Wagyu New York strip ($135 for 20 oz.), or a dry-aged tomahawk ($98 for 36 oz., bone in). Our Wagyu strip was easily enough for our party of four, served on a hot block of Himalayan salt placed center table. While all the meats we ate were excellent cuts, full of rich juicy flavors, the Wagyu was somewhere off the chart. “It’s hard to go back once you have tasted the Wagyu,” our waiter crooned, and he was right.
Our waiter, Ray Colina, insisted that we also try the Fogo bacon, which he professed was “the best in the world.” It’s served in the Market Table area – a large spread of vegetables, salads, and fruits you’ll need to offset the infusions of meat – and is cooked with brown sugar and spices for a superb hot and sweet kick. The Market Table, which includes things like roasted eggplant, grilled baby artichokes, dragon fruit, and mescal salad, is paired with a Feijoada Bar, which includes the traditional Brazilian feijoada black bean stew, cured meats, and cheeses. Both come with the Churrasco Experience – or you can go Market Table solo (with the bacon, yes) for $33 at dinner or $15 at lunch. (The Churrasco Experience is $43 for lunch.)
There are other choices on the menu, such as Chilean sea bass, pan-seared salmon, and cauliflower steak, and though Hensel insists that Gableites order these more than at most other Fogo de Chão locations (he worked first in Orlando and South Beach), most come with carnivorous intentions.
The interior of Fogo is as grand and muscular as the culture of meat that it enshrines, with abstract wagon wheel chandeliers over-head and a massive gaucho bas-relief carving dominating one wall. Even the silverware has a heavy, macho feel to it. But there is also a softer edge, a sophistication to this red-blooded experience, with a samba soundtrack and tulip hanging lanterns that add a sheen of warm light to the golden cast of the main room. There is an upstairs bar as well for Fogo’s caipirinha cocktails, before or after dinner, and a butcher’s shop where Fogo does its own aging and carving, and where you can buy meat to take home and cook yourself. But we doubt you can cook it as well as they do.
Fogo de Chão
2801 Ponce de Leon Blvd