Fire of Brazil
3805 Green Hills Village Dr. 385-1933
5-10 p.m. Sun-Thurs.; 5-11 p.m. Fri.-Sat.
Fire of Brazil, the new restaurant on the campus of the Mall at Green Hills, touts itself as "an authentic Brazilian steakhouse," or churrascaria. Stomach-gorging, all-you-can-eat affairs, churrascarias take their lead from the macho gauchos who rode the rugged range and vast plains of southern Brazil and Argentina; in the evening, having worked up quite an appetite, they would grill a sacrificial cow over an open fire. Recognizing the undeniable appeal of cowboys and red meat, someone conceived restaging the al fresco affair indoors, and churrascarias were born.
Perfect for big, festive outings, churrascarias have an enormous salad bar with enough food to feed any hungry soul, but these restaurants are all about the meat, which is served rodizio-style: servers go from table to table with huge skewers, from which they slice cuts of beef, pork, poultry and sausage. The concept has taken hold in large cities all over the U.S., including Atlanta, which has an entire dining category devoted to churrascarias, thanks to its sizable Brazilian population.
Owned by the Gilbertson familya decidedly gringo surname, even for pan-cultural BrazilFire of Brazil opened its first store in Atlanta more than two years ago. There is a second in Alpharetta, Ga., and a third in Wellington, Fla. With all this in mind, I didn't go expecting to be transported to the beaches of Rio de Janeironot in an Atlanta-born restaurant located in a former Cooker in the heart of ethnically cleansed Green Hills. Still, the words "authentic" and "Brazilian" did make me hope I could suspend reality for a couple of hours.
Alas, one doesn't leave Green Hills behind the front door of Fire of Brazil; we were greeted by two young women whose WASP credentials could have placed them square in the center of an Abercombie & Fitch ad. The interior of the refurbished restaurant presumably follows the style guide for Fire of Brazil décor: dark woods, terra-cotta tile, rustic lighting, tables set with cobalt-blue glasses. It is clean and tasteful and suggests a carefully art-directed page from a Southwestern lifestyle magazine. The main dining room and bar were both bereft of customers on this particular Wednesday night at Nashville's prime dining hour, 7 p.m.
The other dining area to the right is not as warm as the main, perhaps due to the large and centrally located salad bar, so brightly illuminated that we requested a table farther in the back to avoid the glare. When our pretty blond serverdistinct from the skewer-toting gauchosintroduced herself in a deep Southern accent, then mangled the pronunciation of the national drink of Brazil, the caipirinha (ki-pe-REEN-ya), we had little doubt where we were.
Nonetheless, the scent of grilled meat was whetting our appetites, as was the sight of the loaded salad bar, so throwing Standards of Authenticity to the wind, we dove in. We figured a drink would help. The caipirinha is made from muddling lime and sugar in a glass, then adding crushed ice and the potent (100 proof) Brazilian sugar-cane spirit cachaça. Unfortunately, Fire of Brazil only serves one or two brands of cachaça, which are the same ones you find everywhere in the U.S. The experienced Brazil traveler at our table tried to ask if Fire of Brazil carried anything besides Pirassununga 51which is to cachaça what Ronrico is to rumbut it took some doing just to explain this much to the server, so he just went ahead and took whatever she brought. I forsook the wine list to sample a light Brazilian beer, Palma Loucca, which was quite refreshing.
There are two dining options available at Fire of Brazil, both prix fixe: salad bar alone, for $19.50, or salad bar and unlimited meat, for $39.50 (children 5 to 12 eat half-price, under 5 eat free). Before visiting the salad bar, I strongly suggest making an investigative circle of its expanse; though return trips are permissible, it would be easy to fill up on the enticing display and then have little room left for meat. Aside from green salads, there is an admirable spread of other fresh vegetables and creative salads, as well as shellfish, two types of salmon, fruit, cheeses, breads, pasta and fruit. With few exceptionsthe shrimp had obviously been delivered frozen and was watery and tastelessit was quite fresh, colorful and artfully presented.
Once again, though, we couldn't help but bump up against the authenticity question. Do any reading about Brazilian food, and the first two words you're likely to hit are feijoada and farofa. The first is the national dish of Brazil, a rich, flavorful black bean stew thick with meat and sometimes sausage. Churrascarias typically have a giant steaming pot or two of feijoada at the end of the salad bar, but there was none to be found at Fire of Brazil. Our Brazil traveler was at least consoled when he thought he was standing in front of a big plate of farofa, another Brazilian staple made from toasted yuca flour. A server informed him it was tabouli, only to get a stare of disbelief in return. "Yeah, a lot of customers ask about that," the server said. Go figure.
Once sated with salad bar offerings, we got clean plates off the buffet and let loose our most carnivorous instincts. A small card at every place-setting is green on one side, red on the other. Turn the card to green, and a gaucho will instantly appear at your table, holding a skewer of meat and a very large knife. He will tell you the type of meatfilet, rump steak, top sirloin, bottom sirloin, beef ribs, pork ribs, pork loin, pork sausage, leg of lamb, chicken and several bacon-wrapped cutsand then he'll slice a piece, which you then grasp with a pair of tongs, provided at each place-setting. Your server in the meanwhile has brought a bowl of pinto beans (again, no feijoada), white rice and a tomato-onion salsa.
If you do not turn your card to red, the gauchos and the meat will keep coming, in such rapid succession you may likely, as we did, lose track of what is on your plate and find yourself wolfing indiscriminately at an unpleasantly frenetic pace. The prompt carving may have had something to do with the proportion of gauchos to customersone to every two tables, it seemed to us; on busier nights, that may not hold true. Once we got into a more measured pace of card-flipping, we were able to concentrate on the cut at hand. Our favorites were the picanha, from the rumpsteak; the alcatra, an exceedingly tender and flavorful top sirloin cut; the carneiro, young lamb; the costela de boi, beef ribs; and the crispy-skinned linguica, pork sausages. Some of the meatsparticularly the filet and the pork loinwere overcooked and extremely dry, which may have been a result of going back to the fire too often between the gauchos' rounds.
In a country where chain concept restaurants rule, bone-picking this one's claim to authenticity is like chasing windmills, much like questioning the authenticity of P.F. Chang's, Macaroni Grill or Kobe Japanese Steaks relative to their respective countries of origin. The plus for those who like their ethnic dining experiences as Americanized as possible, and drawback for those who want the real thing, is that it's not too Brazilian.
My professional opiniondelivered free of consulting charge but perhaps a tad too late for the Gilbertson familyis that Fire of Brazil has much larger challenges to overcome than challenges to its authenticity. Diners who can afford $50-a-person tabs can have a more sophisticated, leisurely and personal evening while sating their carnivorous cravings at The Palm, Morton's, Fleming's, Ruth Chris or Jimmy Kelly's. While its adjacency to the Regal cineplex would make it seem a natural for a pre-or-post movie dinner, its concept prohibits a quick pre- or post-movie bite to eat. It's too upscale and expensive to lure the casual diner from Green Hills Grille, La Paz or Ruby Tuesday, yet not upscale enough to compete with F. Scott's or Basante's. Location, concept, price pointit's a one-two-three combination punch that can knock out even the most well-financed contenders. Time will tell if this fire catches on or goes down in flames.