Welcome to the Saturday before Halloween in the Warehouse District, where the corner of West Ninth Street and St. Clair Avenue is a happenin' place. If such topics as health insurance, unemployment, or outsourcing are on anybody's mind, you can't tell by looking at the assorted party people who are slipping into and out of the area's drinking establishments. And if anyone is worried about the state of his or her pocketbook, you would never know it by the festive crowd of well-dressed hipsters mixing it up inside Ohio's first Brazilian churrascaria, where the house specialty is an endless parade of fresh-off-the-grill meats, carved tableside by a crew of peripatetic "gauchos."
Even with reservations, there is a 10-minute wait for a table, so we head over to the well-appointed lounge, where we balance on tall, leather sling chairs in front of the opalescent granite bar. A martini menu lists all the old chestnuts, and most of our fellow loungers are nursing brewskis. "Bor-ing!" we signal to each other with a toss of the head, before placing orders for caipirinhas (those punchy Brazilian libations made of crushed limes, sugar, and cachaça, a spirit distilled from sugar cane) and mojitos (yes, they are Cuban, but the blend of well-muddled mint, sugar, and rum never fails to put us in a jolly mood). The labor-intensive drinks create quite a stir among our barmates. "What is that?" one woman asks her companion, waving toward the caipirinha in the hands of our lime-mashing barkeep. "I don't know," her friend answers, "but I think we drank a bunch of them when we went on that cruise."
Even our elegant, dark-haired hostess congratulates us on our choice of libations as she guides us to our table, a tiny, unsteady two-top that would have been fine for cocktails but is totally inadequate for a churrascaria-style feeding frenzy. Why the caipirinhas and mojitos aren't listed on the bar menu or offered along with the extensive international wine list remains a mystery; but by the time the potent drinks are gone, it is a puzzle best saved for consideration by more sober thinkers.
From seats at the edge of the roughly U-shaped salon, we survey the surroundings. The former Circo space -- in its day, the city's most daringly decorated dining room -- has been both toned down and warmed up, with white linens, sturdy wooden chairs, and Brazilian-themed wall art, including a life-sized mural of South American cowboys (the originators of churrascaria), roasting their dinner, rotisserie-style, over a roaring campfire. At least in the room's partial darkness, everything -- walls, ceiling, and massive support posts -- seems to be painted a beefy shade of orange-brown. The room shimmers with the fiery, festive glow of melon-tinted light from the huge, twisted-glass chandelier (original to Circo and now centered over the four-square "salad bar").
Our suave, tuxedoed waiter (also original to Circo, it turns out) appears promptly, bearing a little basket of warm cheese-bread puffs -- their fragile exteriors forming an easily breached barrier around chewy centers as buttery and rich as caramels -- and provides directions on how to dine the churrascaria way.
While there is no written menu, he explains, our per capita $35 qualifies us to make unlimited trips to the meticulously maintained salad bar as well as to partake of a seemingly endless stream of rotisserie-grilled meats, brought directly to the table.
At the salad bar, the rotating selection may include anything from pretty-good sushi, complete with pickled ginger, wasabi paste, and soy sauce, to rustic feijoada, a long-simmered Brazilian stew of black beans, pork, sausage, and sun-dried beef. In addition to the usual salad greens, mixed olives, and sliced veggies, tonight's antipasti options include cool, crisp, sesame-flavored green beans, ivory-colored hearts of palm, and peppery salami. Giant smoked mussels and plentiful (but unexceptional) shrimp headline the seafood selection. Tricolored tortellini in a vegetable cream sauce and firm, mild cod in coconut sauce are among the evening's hot dishes.
However, the key to a well-paced churrascaria is the coaster-sized token the waiter sets on the table -- one side green, for "Bring it on!" and the other side red, for "Stop, for the love of God!" We are advised to use the token to signal the eagle-eyed gauchos, who roam the room bearing skewered meats in one hand and long, broad, white-handled carving knives in the other.
The token system works perfectly, we find, even though the process summons up more silly images from Saturday-morning 'toons: As long as our token is turned red side up, the gauchos glide by us with scarcely a glance. But the minute we flip it to green, we are mobbed by knife-wielding hombres eager to be of service.
For the first hour or so, we say "yes" to every cut of beef, lamb, chicken, turkey, or pork that comes our way. While we chew over the possibilities, the waiter delivers an assortment of condiments, including white rice, polenta cubes, a piquant vinaigrette (which we find goes great on pork), gritty farofa (a bland but textured seasoning of cassava flour, butter, and bacon that adds dimension to lush cuts of beef), and sweet fried plantains (which pair up fruitfully with lamb).
By the second hour, though, we've become more discriminating. At the top of our list of faves is the juicy flank steak, each firm yet tender bite yielding well-seasoned fountains of flavor. We don't say "no" to second helpings of the Parmesan-crusted filet, either, with its pleasantly salty punch; and while leg of lamb is disappointingly dry, fat little lamb chops make tasty, pleasantly gamy tidbits.
When we spot overdone pork tenderloin heading our way, we hurry to turn over the "stop" sign. But we quickly flip it back to "go" when another gaucho appears bearing skewers of bacon-wrapped filet and turkey. Nor do we refuse another serving of picanha, an especially tender, Brazilian-style cut of top sirloin; and neatly trimmed chicken legs, like plump brown bonbons, repeatedly seduce us with their deep, dark flavors.
Meantime, our server and his assistant are constantly in motion, refilling water glasses and fetching fresh plates. Although our waiter says 16 types of meats are usually offered, we get the opportunity to sample just 10 during the course of two visits. Not that we need more grub. But it would have been fun to try items like ham, baby-back pork ribs, and garlic-coated pork-loin niblets, too, if for no other reason than variety's sake.
Satisfied, but not quite surfeited, we finally throw in the token and conclude the meaty portion of our meals with small, scantily dressed servings of leafy greens from the salad bar, as a digestif. Then, it's coffee (regrettably, barely lukewarm) and a shared à la carte dessert -- one night, a flaky pastry shell bursting with warm sautéed bananas, topped with rich banana ice cream and streaks of fresh caramel; another night, a firm, glistening flan, sided with freshly sliced pineapple and its sweet-tart juices. Sherry, port, cognac, cordials, or scotch are final possibilities, but ones we pass up on grounds that one more sip or crumb might result in permanent disability.
It's not until we're heading home that our inner gourmet begins to grumble. We've certainly enjoyed our visit to Brasa, but is this just another case of quantity winning out over quality, we wonder? After due consideration, we feel certain it is not. Admittedly, for some diners, words like "salad bar," "buffet," and "all you care to eat" make the mellowest of dinner music, and those big eaters won't miss a beat when singing the praises of Brasa. But even the most refined gourmet among us must agree that Brasa's concept is fresh, the food is interesting, often authentic, and typically well prepared, and the urbane setting sizzles. That there is not a single soft-serve dispenser on-site -- well, that's just gravy.