By Megan Volpert
As someone interested in modern or even experimental cuisine, it’s been a long time since I bothered with a Brazilian steakhouse.
What self-respecting cutting-edge diner goes to a place like that, right? After eating at Chama Gaúcha, which has been open in Buckhead for three months now, I feel a little dumb for having forgotten the merits of such a place.
The downside of a regular steakhouse is the commitment required. Enjoy your giant rib eye while trying not to think about the New York strip you almost ordered instead; don’t covet thy neighbor’s truffled mac n’ cheese while sulking into your own mixed vegetable medley. A Brazilian steakhouse is always going to be superior to that because of the sheer number of foods you can try.
Chama Gaúcha works the way all these places work: you order beverages, hit the salad bar, then feast on a million different cuts of meat that are carved table-side, and maybe if you exercise a great deal of self-restraint you can make it to two bites of dessert. The difference between those other places and Chama Gaúcha is one of both quality and hospitality.
One of those other places is actually just down the block, but Chama Gaúcha is 10 bucks cheaper at about 40 bucks for dinner and 25 bucks for lunch. The food and beverage quality was excellent. Our server suggested a caipirinha, Brazil’s national cocktail, similar to a margarita. They don’t use a mix for the lime juice – several times I had to unclog my straw because of pulp, which adds brightness to the drink so your taste buds won’t burn out.
It’s misleading to say that we then went to the salad bar. Chama Gaúcha is home to a 360º ice bar: a square covered on all sides by elegantly hard-packed crushed ice, atop which are embedded a wide variety of cold items. You can treat it like tapas, make a salad, or just peck around for interesting things. Hearts of palm, seasoned mozzarella, smoked salmon, sun-dried tomatoes, jumbo asparagus, five olive oils, marinated mushroom caps, a Parmesan wheel as big as your head, et cetera. My wife went nuts over a heaping pile of sweet shrimp cocktail, and I dabbled around with a basil lime sauce that went great on everything. Every item was of the utmost freshness. Vegans can easily get their money’s worth without ever touching meat or bread.
The bread! Small, gorgeously doughy popovers with a faint hit of Parmesan. They’re hollow, so don’t worry about getting full before the parade of meats.
There’s a card on your table, and when you flip it from red to green, the servers appear with a dozen usual cuts and daily specials. Meanwhile, your table accrues a pile of accompaniments. Sauces: horsey, mint jelly, chimichurri, salsa. Sides: mashed potatoes, fried polenta cakes, fried bananas. When you realize you’re too full for dessert, you’ll be glad for that fried banana.
We could talk about the specific meats, but why? You go to a Brazilian steakhouse so you can try everything and get a little meat-drunk. Every bite was cooked to perfection and the char on the outside was just right. My wife dug the bacon-wrapped sirloin and I couldn’t get enough of the beef ribs. To each their own, again and again until you give up and turn your card to the red side.
The beauty of the service at Chama Gaúcha is that at first they won’t take red for an answer. This is Brazilian hospitality! Your server is there to direct the flow of food and to ask you seven times if you’re sure you can’t eat one more bite. We’d thrown in the towel before the kitchen got cracking on some sausage, so our server totally charmed us into flipping that card back to green. Nobody was pushy; everybody was super nice and attentive. You can bring your finicky grandmother here – or your no-nonsense boss, your gluten-free friend, your table of 25 people where seven of them are always late. Indeed, we’re going back very soon.
Megan Volpert lives in Decatur, teaches in Roswell and writes books about popular culture.