What's red and green and goes round and round?
If you're an avid restaurant-goer in Atlanta, you know the punch line to that question has nothing to do with childhood blender jokes. It's taken three short years for churrascarias, the all-you-can-eat Brazilian-style steakhouses, to become a cornerstone of this city's dining landscape. The runaway success of pioneering Fogo de Chao in Buckhead set folks clamoring for hunks of skewered meat served by swarthy guys in gaucho drag. Both Brazilian chains and local restaurateurs responded wholeheartedly: There are currently seven churrascarias in the metro area, with at least one other (Boi Na Braza in Buckhead) on the way.
Sal Grosso, the first American spin-off of a chain in Sao Paulo, Brazil, opened last year in Marietta with a refreshingly au courant appeal. (The dinner-out-before-prom look circa Sixteen Candles is the only touch Fogo de Chao got wrong). Women in tailored suits with smoldering, steely gazes show you to your seat. The rooms are open and bright. Splattery modern art stands out on the stark white walls. A server who is designated as a non-meat slinger rushes right up to explain the deal to newcomers. You know immediately that this person will take good, if perhaps slightly over-attentive, care of you all evening.
The red and green card you typically use in these restaurants to signal the roving gauchos is replaced here with a clever metal hoodiggy fitted with a spinning red and green wheel. It's a more upscale, efficient way to indicate either "Hey, show me the meat!" or "Hold up, don't bring that thing anywhere near me!"
But before the carnivorous chow-down, as in all churrascarias, there is the salad bar to tackle. It's a classic retro deluxe set-up that includes marinated mushrooms and roasted peppers, decent everyday cheeses, chickpea salad, and various kinds of lettuce and bottled dressings. Oh, and of course those slices of carrots and beets cut to sport precise, angled ridges. No salad bar is complete without those. A salad of canned cut green beans and crumbles of feta tastes like a once-newfangled recipe your mom might have clipped out of Southern Living. Most of it has that mellow vinegary bite that neither wows nor offends.
I'm more drawn to the salad bar's hot items. Gently spiced black beans, rice pilaf, mashed potatoes sprinkled with parmesan -- all the starchy goodies that the Atkins followers come to these places to avoid. And really, you don't want to fill up on this stuff. Maybe I'll just have a teeny second helping of ravioli in tomato-cream sauce and then call it quits.
Now, before you begin to gorge on the meat, I encourage you to order a caipirinha. It's a cool Brazilian cocktail made with cachaca, a sugarcane spirit, and crushed slivers of lime. The one they make at Sal Grosso is gracefully poised between sweet and sour, and, between bites of salty meat, is reinvigorating to the palate. I can tell this nimble little concoction will be competing with the margarita for my affections come summertime.
If you're a resolute vinophile, the wine list is brief and basic. The South American choices offer the most intriguing possibilities. Your ever-attentive server will be glad to usher you through the range of Carmeneres, Malbecs and Chilean Cabernets.
Right. You've got your libations and you've had your fill of the salad bar. Fresh plates have been brought. Ready? It's time to snarf. Check with your tablemates to make sure everyone's undone their belt buckle one notch. Aaaaaand ... Go! The wheel is slid to green and here they come, baggy gaucho pants fluttering and skewers brandished. Top sirloin? (Carve, carve.) Picanha -- the signature rump roast? Pork ribs? Marinated chicken wings? Sausages? Leg of lamb?
OK, wait, stop, stop -- spin back to red! Breathe. Your server will come over to solicitously inquire if you'd like mint jelly with your leg of lamb. Sure, why not? Another soul will come baring accompaniments: cheese rolls and fried bananas. The cheese rolls are sufficient, but they make me long for Fogo's, which dissolve ethereally in your mouth. The fried bananas are encrusted with cinnamon-sugar, not what I want with hunks of meat. Não, obrigado.
And the meat? The picanha is juicy and firm, and the gauchos are careful to find a section of the meat that is cooked to your preference. Leg of lamb is a bit on the gamy side, but I don't mind that. The chicken wings are a quick, zesty gnaw. Unctuous sausages detonate the right primal buttons. Somebody flip that thing back to green. Feed me, Seymour.
Succulent fraldinha, or bottom sirloin, has a likable nubbly texture that gets my vote as the best choice here. Filet mignon is often more cooked than one hopes for that cut of meat, particularly when it's hacked into bits and wrapped in bacon. In fact, encounters with too-done cuts can be frequent. I never sample a piece of pork loin that isn't dry, and the lamb chops can lean toward gristly but overcooked.
That said, the fellas do everything in their power to make you happy. Want a rarer piece of rump roast? They'll jog back to the kitchen to see what they can snag.
The only thing to unequivocally avoid at Sal Grosso is the swordfish. You know the moment it's plopped on your plate -- because you can smell it -- that it's fishy like you haven't known fishy in some time. Remove it promptly. This isn't something that is much of a concern at dinner, with so many other choices to fill you up, but they offer a swordfish and chicken-only special at lunch. Don't do it. Spring for the full shebang, even though you'll want nothing more than a nap afterward.
Meals here have a luxurious denouement. Nobody's rushing you out of your oversized, leather-covered director's chair. You can sip on the last of your second or third caipirinha and compare notes on how much food you all stuffed down your gullet. We get a little punchy one evening and decide to find out what will happen if we set the wheel to half-red and half-green. The good-hearted gauchos see we have wound down and just chuckle as they whiz by.
The kindly server will materialize to ply you with itinerant carts touting desserts -- mostly commercially made products like carrot cake and things with ridiculous names like Chocolate Homicide -- or after-dinner liquors. They have one dessert I like, a made-in-the-back number of blended papaya and melty vanilla ice cream with cassis poured over top. It reminds me of something we threw together as teenagers on Friday night after we broke into the parents' liquor cabinet. It's light and mindless, and all I need at the end of a pig-out like this.
The moment eventually comes: You hoist yourself from the table and waddle through rooms where others are still in the midst of their feeding frenzy. I always stumble out of these places, gaze up blankly at the sky and think, My God, man, you just ingested 18 different cuts of four different animals. My stomach twitches at the thought even as I write this. But you know what? Give me a couple months and I'll be right back for more.