Magic and Meat
Some people might call it luck that the 9-month-old Chima Brazilian Steakhouse continues to attract customers to a lonely little shopping plaza down on Las Olas Isles. The site has been a restaurant heartbreaker since long before Il Tartufo took a tumble there two years ago.
But the Brazilians would probably call it magia -- "magic" in our much uglier English.
This explanation, so peculiarly Brazilian in its love of the paranormal, probably works as well as any. Chima seems to operate on a mysterious sort of alchemy, mixing patrons who don't seem to want to leave, proprietors who are comfortable with themselves and their customers, and a relaxed staff that acts as though rushing through a meal is like skipping foreplay.
The simile is apt. Chima puts out a hazy sexiness from the moment you exit your car. For some, that feeling may come from the looks of the valets, whose services are complimentary. (And they're essential. Trying to find your own parking place in this area is as futile as trying to find fresh fish at Arthur Treacher's.)
For others, the let's-get-it-on rhythm can be felt at the entrance. After walking through a path flanked by fountains, you arrive in a secret-garden kind of courtyard canopied by two banyan trees. Then you notice that the street sounds are muffled and the pace is slower. In the distance, you can hear the lilt of Brazilian samba music. Around the edges of the courtyard are linen-covered tables, which make it easy to sit down and, for a moment, imagine being lost in an Amazonian rain forest -- with a caipirinha cocktail and credit card, of course.
Once you're inside, the magically luxuriant modus vivendi continues. The hostess ushers you languidly past a sleek Deco-inspired bar and through a couple of rooms on close terms with the idea that comfort doesn't come cheap. The soft, off-table lighting makes you look like you always knew you could. The sleek woodwork and muted browns, chosen by designer Paulo Cesar and Maria Biasi, wife of the owner, Bruno Silva, seem perfect for your living room -- if you had a few hundred thousand in your design budget.
And the staff treats you as though you were worth a few mil. Many of the waiters have been imported from the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais, where the first Chima opened in the city of Uberlandia. (There are plans to expand to Chicago and Montreal in 2005.) If you don't recognize the staff members' nationalities from their accents, you will from their ability to infuse even an initial tableside greeting with a smile that suggests that the normal cares and woes of life are irrelevant.
These men wear their slightly over-the-top gaucho costumes as naturally as if they were in T-shirt and jeans. The gaucho, that South American cowboy who was as much a part of southern Brazilian culture as that of Argentina, figures prominently in the world of Chima. In addition to the waiters' uniforms, he is also responsible for the name of the restaurant. Chima is short for that gaucho favorite chimarrao, a bitter herbal tea typical of the Rio Grande do Sul region of Brazil and similar to Argentina's yerba maté. Finally, the gaucho has contributed the main point of the menu.
Chima's management, headed by David Preira, relies heavily on its expertise with the churrasco, the barbecue as originally practiced by gauchos in Rio Grande do Sul, the southernmost state of Brazil. Following the principles of rotisserie cooking, a fire is set, the coals burn until they are bright red, and then the skewered cuts of pork, lamb, chicken, beef, and sausage are hung on the grill high enough so that the heat slowly infuses the meats and melts the fat away. The flesh is continually basted with a brine of sea salt and garlic to keep everything juicy and tender.
But Preira and Silva also know that traditional Brazilian cuisine, as served in such South Florida restaurants as Panorama in Pompano Beach, is as light and suitable to our heat and humidity as buffalo are to flight. To compensate, they have wisely adapted their menu by adding a buffet to the meat selections. The result is a comparatively health-conscious dining experience that, when enjoyed anytime after 8 p.m., doesn't make you feel like walking on all fours the next morning.
As you might expect from a country that has embraced Nelson Ned and the thong, dinner at Chima comes with more than a dollop of caprice. There is really no formal menu -- only a pricey, sophisticated wine list with an expected emphasis on South American reds such as Brazilian Miolos and Chilean varietals, and a nod to a dessert menu. In between, you will encounter a dining experience singular in its rewards -- and its cunning touches of luxury.
This first touch comes immediately after you sit down at your table with an offer of three kinds of water -- mineral, gas, or tap. Choose mineral and it will be served from a glass cylinder that could have been designed by Philip Johnson. (The water is actually "designed" by Voss, the chic water maker whose beverage supposedly comes from a virgin aquifer in central Norway and costs $27 to $36 per case, or $2 for a small bottle.)
After you are transported by either the water or one of the Brazilian reds, you are then guided to a neighboring dining room off the kitchen, where you find the buffet.
Chima's buffet is a curious kind of multicultural affair, with selections as diverse as an overly interpreted Waldorf salad (missing the tartness of Macintosh apples and the right proportion of mayonnaise) and feijoada (deliciously prepared, but hardly a tempting hot-weather dish). As with any buffet, freshness is key, and Chima's version scores big on this point. The spread includes an array of cold meats and fish; I suggest the thinly sliced, delicately smoked salmon and turkey breast, which would please the most discriminating bar mitzvah palate. There's also a handful of salad choices, including a smartly prepared Brazilian potato salad with tiny fresh peas, caviar that seems separated at birth an hour ago, breads of every grain and shape, a choice of fresh vegetables starring al dente cold asparagus as thick as a drumstick and yet still not stringy. There's even a velvety blue cheese mousse that manages to balance the cream cheese with its spikier relative.
If you aren't careful, you'll return to your table with a full plate. Silly you. Within seconds after you sit down, you will be visited by one of the gaucho-costumed waiters bearing a cut of skewered meat, a knife, and a smile.
"Alcatra," he announces. "Sirloin." He looks at you expectantly, ready to slice off a piece and let you, with your pair of silver tongs, put the piece on your plate.
He smiles a little more. You smile back. There is a pause. He nods toward your place setting. You suddenly notice a small laminated token, orange on one side, black on the other: The orange side says "Yes, please." (Sin, por favor.) The black side says "No, thank you." (Non, obrigado).
Never has the color orange been so full of peril. Why? As long as the waiters see a token orange-side-up, they'll keep coming, and coming, and coming again, each time with a cut or type of meat or poultry, expecting you to want a little more.
And, sad to say, you will. With each trip (and each sip of wine), the meats seem to taste even better, and soon your table is choosing favorites and sampling one another's favorites, the server carving and laughing, the orange tokens stubbornly refusing to flip over, and you eating far more than you ever planned. (And to hide your gluttony, another touch of luxury: constantly replaced, beautifully designed white plates shaped like waves.)
Our personal churrasco champs? The prime rib, wrapped in foil and then cooked for 24 hours; the pink, well-garlicked lamb (cordeiro), sliced with its bone and served with mint sauce and mint jelly; the butt steak (alcatra), a flavorful cross section of three cuts of beef; and the filet mignon, so expertly grilled that we kept our orange sides up for three visits from the waiter. Also high on the list were the pork loin with parmesan crust (lombo) and the bottom round cut (fraldinha). Less popular at our table were the Brazilian pork sausages (lingüiça), dry and relatively tasteless, and the chicken (frango), which, even when wrapped in bacon, seemed flavorless.
If you're not full yet, you might want to look at the limited dessert menu, which is dominated by wines such as ports and companion mousses and creams (and averages $9). Try one of the latter, say, the pecan cream, a flan-like cold pudding covered with fresh whipped cream and so sweet it should be taken in small doses, like a delicious cough syrup. And then finish with some justifiably world-famous Brazilian coffee, perhaps a cappucino.
At this point, the rush from all the sugar and animal protein may make you feel invincible -- that is, until you look at your check, whose base calculation starts with a $39.95 per person prix fixe for the buffet (including meats) and quickly zooms upward. When you add in the wine ($8 per glass) or the Voss water or a dessert, the final bill may cause you a pang of remorse, to the degree that any $200 bill for a party of three (including tip) can cause sorrow. But the feeling won't last. The meal has been too good, the music too inviting, and the magia too strong.
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