Monday, September 22, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

Gauchos stride the range on Chestnut St.

Around the corner from the Capital Grille, the power steakery on South Broad, and kitty-corner across Chestnut from the Olive Garden, you will now find Fogo de Chão, the newest chain operator in Center City, setting up house in the splendid, French Regency bones of J.E. Caldwell, for most of the last century the city's classic jeweler.

Fogo de Chão (pronounced fo-go dee shoun) means "fire on the ground," and while the cuts of meat here are hardly seared over rustic campfires, as was the practice on the grasslands of southern Brazil, their stylistics - including tableside carving - descend from that other American cowboy tradition.

Instead of a Capital Grille-style slab of meat on a plate, the sirloin or filet or beef ribs here are paraded on glistening skewers, tender slices carved on demand at your table - a barbecue (or more precisely, churrasco) buffet on the hoof.

In matte-finished murals set reverentially above the dining space you can view the originals: grizzled, pantalooned gauchos twisting sticks of meat over open pits.

But let us follow on this particular evening one of their latter-day, Sao Paulo-trained heirs. He is a young-Kirk-Douglas look-alike by the mouthful of a name of Ivanir Luis Delavecchia.

It is Day 20 at Fogo, which neatly avoids the theme-restaurant trap of parody or trivialization. It manages, in fact, an appealing balance between elegant setting (the tall, gilded columns, fine paneling and chunky chandeliers that distinguished Caldwell's) and energized, but cheerful, proudly skillful service.

Delavecchia is himself a product of the cattle region he now represents, his features a blend of the Brazilian heritages apparent in his trilingual name.

Fogo features a menu of about 15 meats (dinner is $44; lunch $24) in addition to a grand central salad bar, and on request, smoky sides of black beans and rice. But servers tend to have a specialty, and this night Delavecchia's is the king of this unending parade of meat - the sublimely rich, beefy, half-moon cap of the top sirloin called picanha.

The creme de la creme.

The drill for the diner goes like this: Visit the salad bar for surprisingly tasty chicken salad, roast peppers, scooped-out artichoke bottoms, hearts of palm or, superfluously, cheeses or sliced prosciutto or Genoa salami.

Return to your table and flip over a red disk (to the green side), signaling one of the waiters circling with skewers to stop by your table.

Beforehand, the server-chefs have sharpened their knives to razor edges on whetstones. The unseasoned meat - some from Cryovac packages, some hand-butchered - is pierced on the skewers and held in a cooler next to the grills.

Delavecchio extracts one with about three hefty picanha steaks bunched on it, sprinkles it with coarse Brazilian sea salt, and sets it to cooking - not over charcoal as they do at a more blue-collar churrascoria (actually named Picanha, at the corner of Castor and Hellerman in a Brazilianizing enclave of the Northeast), and not over a campfire, certainly - but on a high-tech, stainless-steel Combo Broiler made by I & R Manufacturing in Mesquite, Texas.

Fogo's managers are touchy about this fact, and unlike at a few of its 11 other outlets in the United States and Brazil, the unglamorous grill station is hidden out of sight, the murals conveying the mythology, while the work is done by a custom-made, 500-degree gas-jet rig with three tiers of rotisserie racks. They swear the gas grilling equals charcoal grilling, and while I'm a charcoal-phile, Fogo did serve some of the finest leg of lamb, strips of juicy bottom sirloin, and rich picanha I've had in these parts.

Why fill up on other items - prosaic sausages, fatty ribeye, herby chicken, or slightly dry pork ribs - when that sort of beef is in the room?

I wave that other stuff off.

At 7:22 p.m. Delavecchio lifts a skewer from the Combo Broiler and sweeps into the room.

At green-light tables, he sets it on a small tray, takes three passes with his sharp butcher knife, draping a thin flap of steak that the diner puts on his plate with a pair of tongs.

Within three minutes, he's back in the kitchen, smearing a little salt on the exposed meat, hoisting the skewer back on the grill. Its rosy surfaces caramelize and darken again for their encore.

But another skewer is already ready: He's off, his trousers billowing, his elbows tucked close, his knife and skewer held chest-high in the prescribed two-finger vertical hold.

He cuts a proud figure - an other-American cowboy, a keeper of the flame, untrivialized by the cynical branding of Roy Rogers or Lone Star or Golden Corral.

In a city besieged by cheesy corporate chains (Olive Garden!) and history-erasing interiors, I'm glad he rode into town - and the Fogo gang along with him.


Fogo de Chão

1337 Chestnut St.

215-636-9700

www.fogodechao.com


Contact columnist Rick Nichols at 215-854-2715 or rnichols@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/ricknichols.

Rick Nichols Inquirer Columnist
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