It can be a little hard to know what to make of Fogo de Chão in Uptown. That's the new super-glossy outpost of an expanding global chain (coming soon: Jeddah! Dubai! Jacksonville, Fla.!) of churrascarias, or Brazilian-style steakhouses. It's so shiny, so high-concept, so choreographed, that it feels less like a restaurant than like a theme park, a Magic Kingdom of meat. And it's every bit as sincere and authentic as Cinderella's Castle.
Not that you can't have a good time here, just as you could at Disney World. The restaurant, which opened in February, shimmers on the ground floor of the equally shimmery One Uptown high-rise. You pass an immense glassed-in floor-to-ceiling wine cooler on your way into the big dining area, which is decorated with wood-clad columns that look like highly stylized trees. Lots of round ornaments dangle from the ceiling, including some disco-ball-type events hanging over the "market table," which is what the salad bar is called here. The place is comfortable, airy, slick -- and soulless in the way of a quite nice high-end chain hotel.
If you've ever been to a Brazilian steakhouse -- and they are thick on the ground in these parts, what with your Fogos, your Texas de Brazils, your Villa's Grills and so on -- you know the drill here. It's all-you-can-eat meat, brought to you by a procession of skewer-bearing servers in gauchoesque garb. These festivities are preceded -- and often accompanied by -- trips to that market table, which is laden with vegetables, cheeses, salads and charcuterie. None of it's surprising or especially interesting -- things like smoked salmon, bocconcini, hearts of palm, prosciutto, kale salad and so on. But it's copious and pristine. Even as the evening wears on, it's all kept fresh, neat and plentiful.
All-you-can-eat dining can sometimes feel like a contest of wills: You, the diner, are seeking to justify the excursion by scarfing down as much as you can of the high-dollar goodies -- steak, to pick a random example -- that drew you here; they, the proprietors, are trying to maintain their margins by getting you to load up on as much inexpensive filler -- pasta, rice, beans, potatoes -- as possible.
To Fogo de Chão's credit, the game isn't played that way here, and at nearly $50 a head for the full-rigged experience, it certainly shouldn't be. (True, there is a feijoada bar that features a wan and underseasoned version of the Brazilian national dish of black bean stew and rice, but it's easy to overlook). Once you signal that you are ready for the protein parade to commence by flipping over a little coaster so the green side faces up, the meats start coming fast and furious. You turn the red side up when you want a break, or when you're done.
There's chicken in the form of juicy little legs, and snappy if underseasoned thumb-size linguiça pork sausages. The main event here, though, is really the red meat, salted and cooked on a gas-fired grill. Fogo features several cuts of beef -- tenderloin; rib-eye; top sirloin, a.k.a. alcatra; bottom sirloin, or fraldinha; plus a Brazilian steak called picanha, which is a compact cut from the top sirloin with a juicy fat cap. They're brought to your table by many nimble young servers, who deftly carve off hunks of meat onto your plate with what are clearly lethally sharp knives.
The meat is always hot, thanks to return trips to the grill, which also mean there's always a nice exterior crust. Larger cuts, like the top and bottom sirloin, stay juicy and medium-rare, though smaller cuts can be overcooked. That's especially true of the lamb: Slices carved from the leg are rosy and moist, while the pretty little double-rib chops are dry and gray. A captain made a big show of asking how we wanted those chops one evening -- medium rare, please! -- but it made no difference.
You may learn several interesting things from this style of dining. The first is that meats that have been generously, even heavily, salted and then grilled can all start to taste pretty similar after a while, but for slight variations in texture, tenderness and fattiness. There are, ostensibly, sauces such as chimichurri and horseradish sauce on hand to liven things up, but I never saw them and was never offered any.
The second is that you probably can't eat as much meat as you had imagined (the large gentleman in the Hawaiian shirt and flip-flops at a nearby table one night being the exception that proves the rule). As the picanhas and fraldinhas and alcatras run together, it can all start to feel exhausting. The skimpy sides don't do much to break things up, either, although they're good: the addictive pão de queijo, little round cheesy rolls made from yuca flour (gluten-free!), the garlicky mashed potatoes, the fried batons of polenta and the caramelized bananas. Unless you have the resolve to make repeated trips to the market table, you'll spend most of the evening looking at a plate with nothing but alternating hunks of seared flesh on it.
The third thing you may learn is that you'd better be a carnivore if you go to a place like this, because if you order the fish you'll be punished for it. There's only one choice, Chilean sea bass, and a meat-averse companion had to wait for it for the better part of an hour. When it finally arrived, the fish was nicely cooked -- two juicy hunks perched atop a raft of asparagus spears -- but it was sprinkled with chunks of mango and (shudder) strawberry and accompanied by a brutally sweet mango and malagueta pepper sauce.
A candylike sweetness also obliterated Fogo's version of Brazil's national cocktail, the cachaça-based caipirinha. But Fogo gets major props for a reasonable wine list that's heavy on gently priced reds that are ideal for this kind of food: malbecs, tempranillos and cabernets from South America.
If you are mad enough to order dessert after all this, Fogo de Chão offers choices that include New York-style cheesecake drenched in strawberry sauce, and slices of caramelized pineapple with vanilla ice cream and whipped cream. They are large and slightly silly, which is also pretty much how you will feel on your way out.
Mark Vamos is a journalism professor at Southern Methodist University.
Fogo de Chão (2 stars)
Price: $$$$ (Dinner churrasco and market table $46.50 per person; market table $26.95 per person; sea bass and market table $42.95 per person. Lunch churrasco and market table $32.95 per person; market table $15 per person; sea bass and market table $27.95 per person. Weekend brunch churrasco and market table $36.95 per person; market table $26.95 per person; sea bass and market table $42.95 per person. Desserts $8 to $9.75.)
Service: This is a carefully choreographed operation; well-trained, cheerful servers come to the table bearing hefty skewers of meat from which they carve off hunks. It all stays surprisingly hot and fresh, and the "market table" salad bar is pristine and carefully tended. Do something that interrupts the flow, though -- such as ordering the fish -- and the system can go a little haywire.
Ambience: The vast, wood-toned dining area is sleek and airy, with well-spaced, comfortable tables.
Noise level: Low
Location: 2619 McKinney Ave., Dallas; 214-720-2777; fogodechao.com
Hours: Lunch Monday-Friday 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Brunch Saturday-Sunday 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Dinner Monday-Thursday 5 to 10 p.m., Friday 5 to 10:30 p.m., Saturday 2 to 10:30 p.m., Sunday 4 to 9 p.m.
Credit cards: All major
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Most recent health department inspection score: 96 (March 23)
Alcohol: Full bar, with a wine list that includes a number of gently priced, grilled-meat-friendly reds from South America.
5 stars: Extraordinary (Defines fine dining in the region)
4 stars: Excellent (One of the finest restaurants in Dallas-Fort Worth)
3 stars: Very good (A destination restaurant for this type of dining)
2 stars: Good (Commendable effort, but experience can be uneven)
1 star: Fair (Experience is generally disappointing)
No stars: Poor
Average dinner per person
$ -- $14 and under
$$ -- $15 to $30
$$$ -- $31 to $50
$$$$ -- More than $50