Saturday, August 25, 2007

Carnivore Carnival

The ancient ritual of offering burnt sacrifices to the gods is happening nightly in New York City.

My colleague “Rocky” has a deep and abiding affection for red meat – mostly rare – which inspires him to host a team event at Churrascaria Plataforma Rodizio, a practically unpronounceable pantheon of protein at 316 West 49th Street in Manhattan.

Churrasco is the Brazilian form of barbecue where enormous cuts of beef and other meats are seasoned with garlic and sea salt, skewered and roasted on an open wood fire. The tradition can be traced back to the early 1800s in Brazil where local ranchers called gauchos cooked over an open flame and perfected the art of rapidly cutting razor-thin slices onto each other’s dinner plates. It’s a little slice of life for devoted carnivores.

I have some experience with this tradition – the eating, not the slicing. Years ago, my colleague Splint McCullough and I were on assignment in Sao Palo, Brazil, and we spent the evening at a churrasco. Splint consumed thrice his weight in steer.

As often seems to be the case these days, I am late for this engagement. I should not have taken that last phone call. A well-dressed and stone-faced maitre d’ opens the door and I enter a cavernous hall filled with raucous meat mavens. The patrons all look remarkably fit and trim. I assume they must be Atkins Diet devotees. Some have assumed an aggressive posture near the centrally-located salad bar, a titular nod to the health-conscious among us. The level of “salad loading” seems unusually high, given the specialty of the house, but I suppose the lettuce and chick peas are available to help assuage any guilt that might crop up during the evening.

Make no bones about it. This is a pure, unadulterated flesh-fest not for the faint of heart or stomach. I am led to our table of 20 and as expected, I am one of the last to arrive. I take my seat at one end of the table and immediately take note of waiters parading past me on each side, carrying alarmingly sharp Samurai swords that skewer large steaming chunks of glossy meat. The waiters carry a second knife in hand to rapidly whip off those juicy slices.

There is a process one must quickly learn if one is to manage his continuous meat intake. A laminated cardboard disk the size of a coaster sits by my place setting. There is a circular red strip on one side and a circular green strip on the other. Green means “Bring on the meat,” and the minute I flip to green, waiters are crowding the table with shish kabob meant for a giant. The red strip means, “My cholesterol levels need a time-out.”

Steel blades are flashing and I wish I’d brought a styptic pencil for quick treatment of nicked ears. A second stomach might not hurt either. My fear of injury is unfounded however. These guys are craftsmen. Their knives glide through the perfectly-grilled meat with surgical precision, layering succulent slices onto my plate in a brisk clip.

The carnivorous cavalcade streams past the table – prime rib, lamb, sausage, chicken, short ribs, flank steak, and some varieties I don’t even recognize. Only once does a spatter of juice hit the pristine white tablecloth. Each mouthful is smoky, briny and savory. I’ve rarely had meat infused with such flavor. It’s so intense, it almost hurts. An inky-red malbec wine is poured as an accompaniment.

I wonder out loud who is tending the prolific barbecue pit, surely the sweatiest job in Manhattan. I establish my own technique for avoiding a bovine pile-up. The minute I can no longer see the plate, I turn the disk to red. Once I see white porcelain again, I turn the disk to green. Pacing is everything at churrasco. I quickly develop a fondness for the sausage, but it’s not offered as frequently. The table sets up a vigilant “sausage watch” and the minute someone spots a sword on the other side of the room I flip my disc to green. Instantly I receive hot sausage, all I can eat.

I barely have time to catch my breath when a three-tier dessert cart screeches to a halt near my left shoulder. The coconut flan looks appealing, but sounds a bit fattening. I don’t want to over-indulge (if that’s even possible at this point) so I select a demure serving of caramel flan, instead. The sheer volume of food does not deter several colleagues from selecting the jumbo-sized tiramisu. I am in awe of their endurance. We speculate about flipping our disks to green to see if the desserts will keep coming.

I am experiencing complete protein overload when I stumble towards the E-train sometime after 9 p.m.

The aftermath? Right now, I’m thumbing through my vegetarian cookbooks. I really need to work a little more celery into my diet.
©2007 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved


Lydia (The Perfect Pantry) said...

For several years, near Harvard Square in Cambridge, there was a restaurant that sounds like this one, but perhaps on a slightly smaller scale. I remember it as being Argentinian, but perhaps it was Brazilian, or perhaps the tradition is similar. I do remember meat, meat and more meat -- and some good salsa-like dishes at the centrally-located salad bar. The salsa was necessary to cut the heaviness of the meat, and the meat was so very good that you really just wanted to eat forever. Dessert? Hmmm -- I surely don't remember dessert!

Anonymous said...

The first time I went to a churascharria was in Buckhead,Atlanta - Fogo de Chao. It was phenomenal and I can't forget the experience. You really need to learn to pace yourself when you go to a Brazilian meat fest. My favorite one to go to now is the locally owned Ipanema Grill. It is a ritual that whenever we have guests from out of the country, Ipanema Grill is the first stop in our list of restaurants to go to. :)

Patricia Scarpin said...


I have never been a fan of churrascarias but my family are crazy about them - all that meat makes me dizzy!
I'm glad you enjoyed the experience, though - being a Brazilian it's a great feeling to see our food being appreciated in other parts of the world.

Sandi @the WhistleStop Cafe said...

As you said, not for the faint of heart... or the lightweight. This makes CiCi's pizza look like a brunch.

T.W. Barritt at Culinary Types said...

Hi Lydia - some of the research I did indicated that there is a similar tradition in Argentina. I'm lucky I remember dessert, too!

Veron - sounds like a visit to the Ipanema Grill is in order! When can I drop by? :-)

Patricia - I was thinking of you while I was there! Everyone enjoyed it so much, but you're right, it is dizzying!

Sandi - I ate salad all weekend!

Jann said...

Talk about a protein overload-yes, but it sounded like quite a preformance with all concerned.I enjoy places like this~for very special times, of course........someplace I should visit next time I'm in NYC~