"Meat?" meat meat.
"Meat," meat meat.
That's all you really need to know about Bacana Brasil, the churrascaria that opened in April on the outskirts of the Westfield Chesterfield Mall. That's really all I can remember: Meat meat meat until the colors blurred and the room spun. Hours later I lay awake in bed, thinking it would be a really good idea to call the vegetarian I dated in college just to shout, "Meat!"
If you've never dined at a churrascaria, you've almost certainly seen an ad for Fogo de Chão or another Brazilian steak house in an in-flight magazine: Smiling gauchos brandish skewers of dripping meat; one slices the first juicy piece with his sword. I don't know why these ads are so common in the pages of in-flight magazines. Maybe the idea of limitless meat appeals to exhausted, famished business travelers. Maybe a churrascaria is the only thing that can make Philadelphia seem exotic.
The gimmick is this: You sit at your table and order drinks as you would at any regular restaurant. There's no menu, though. Your server tells you to help yourself to the salad bar and the buffet of hot foods. The "gauchos" gauchos in costume, if not in fact wander among the tables with skewers of beef, lamb, pork, chicken and shrimp. (There's salmon, too, but not on a skewer.) One gaucho pushes a cart burdened with what looks like an entire side of beef. It's either the leg or the shoulder; we heard differing answers from the gaucho and our server.
On your table is a disc; one side is red, the other green. When you're ready to accept meat from the wandering gauchos, you turn it from red to green. When you need a break, you turn it from green to red.
At Bacana, the disc is essentially a coaster, and when we first needed it, one of us was using it as such. Not that it mattered. Bacana's gauchos offered us meat after we'd turned the coaster to red. I think one of them was eyeing us even as we ate dessert.
Before you turn your disc to green, you'll be tempted to get a salad, at least. Maybe just a handful of rabbit food to ease your conscience. Resist. You can eat a salad tomorrow. You can eat two salads tomorrow. You almost certainly will eat two salads tomorrow. Trust me: In the days after a meal at a churrascaria, you'll crave greens and fresh, soft fruit more often and with more ardor than you've ever thought possible.
Besides, Bacana's salad bar and buffet offer little of interest. There is a selection of different greens, if you must, though I spotted only three dressings, including one that looked like melted strawberry ice cream. The salad bar also offers a wide selection of (intentionally) below-room-temperature vegetable dishes, grains and composed salads. Nothing I tried rose above ordinary.
The buffet of hot foods includes fried chicken wings. I can't imagine why you would want fried chicken in addition to all of the other meat; if you do, know that these wings are average. There is also feijoada, the traditional Brazilian stew of black beans and meat, which I found bland. Next to the pot of feijoada and a tray of rice is a tray labeled farofa; these are roasted bits of cassava flour meant to be added to your stew. But if you don't know this, there isn't really anyone around the buffet to tell you.
Really, though, you're here for...the meat.
Our first gaucho brought top-round sirloin. Three fat steaks were impaled on his skewer, and the slices he cut for us were thin, medium-rare and delicious by far the best meat of the night. On the other hand, steak heavily seasoned with garlic and pepper was much too chewy. And I say this as someone who doesn't mind a hanger steak with a little chew.
There seemed to be several gauchos carrying skewers of chicken, sometimes wrapped in bacon, sometimes unadorned. Feel free to skip the latter, but the chicken with bacon was wonderfully smoky. The shrimp were shrimp, unpeeled and not exceptionally flavorful.
Avoid the salmon at all costs. It was served in pieces, each topped with some kind of dill sauce. The dominant flavor was salmon that had been cooked a couple of minutes too long.
Both lamb and pork are presented as super-size shish kebabs. The chunks of lamb were my second-favorite meat after the top round, surprisingly tender and with an excellent balance of lamb's natural flavor and char. The pork wasn't quite so good, but it delivered the simple pleasures of barbecued meat.
There are sausages, too. They aren't bad.
The biggest disappointment was that shoulder/leg on the cart. The gaucho carved a few slices for each of us, but most of us just picked around one. The meat was something like roast beef, and fatty OK but unremarkable. Another gaucho suggested topping it with one of the sauces on our table, a thin, caramel-colored liquid with a flavor somewhere between soy sauce and Worcestershire sauce. It was fine, but the meat just seemed like such a waste.
The same meats come back again and sometimes again, and even if you try to eat only a little of each, eventually you become meat-drunk. You probably think meat-drunkenness is your typical gluttonous stupor the post-Thanksgiving-dinner tryptophan crash. Nosiree. It's a shockingly giddy high, like a hit of nitrous oxide or a couple of glasses of Champagne on an empty stomach. One of my friends got a glazed look in the middle of a story and completely lost his train of thought. For no good reason, I declared that I was made entirely out of prosciutto. Another friend accused me of just being a ham. We all laughed like this was the wittiest shit since Oscar Wilde choked on his last bon mot.
And, no, we weren't drunk drunk. The pace of the meal was so quick that finishing one drink was difficult. Savoring a drink or poring over the lengthy wine list (heavy on California reds, with bottles priced for most budgets) was out of the question. Savoring anything is out of the question, which is the downside of churrascaria dining. The whole what-the-hell aspect of the experience is a draw, but it's hard to imagine doing it more than once, much less on a regular basis.
We didn't really have room for dessert and they aren't included in the all-you-can-eat price but we did manage to try a few. Our clear favorite was a chocolate custard that conveyed the pleasures of both mousse and flan. Half of a pear soaked with cinnamon water and served with ice cream was like a decent apple pie without the crust.
As we left, I noticed a large, unsightly metal sign inside the front door warning patrons that Bacana Brasil isn't responsible for damage to or theft from cars in its parking lot. I was taken aback. This is a fairly pricey restaurant in Chesterfield. There doesn't seem to be need for such a sign certainly not one so big.
But I wonder: Maybe I'm wrong about meat-drunkenness. Maybe, while it makes some men silly, it turns others reckless, still others to rage. As a professional eater, I'd like to think I have a fairly high meat tolerance, and I got behind the wheel that night without much concern.
I swear, officer, I've only had a couple of steers.