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Restaurant Reviews

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.

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D.B. Tipmore

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