Am I a pig? While I possess no particularly porcine qualities (a sincere love of truffles notwithstanding), it may be that I am.
The late-18th-century French gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin famously wrote, "Tell me what you eat and I'll tell you what you are." If this is the case, I may be not only a pig, but also a cow, a chicken, a lamb or a sausage, perhaps in ways both metaphorical and metaphysical. What I know of myself for certain, however, is that I am capable of embarrassing displays of Pavlovian behavior when confronted with unlimited quantities of very tasty food. Enter my figurative ringing bell: Brasa Grill, the Warehouse District's hot new Brazilian steakhouse.
I would be remiss if I failed to mention that I harbored some skepticism prior to my first visit to Brasa, where, I was told, one can eat all that one wishes. Based on experiences from my distant past, I conjured up visions of a chain of American "all-you-can-eat" steakhouses with fabulously lackluster food, institutional-quality meat and the same name as the ranch where Hoss and Little Joe lived.
I can happily report that any such expectation was completely unfounded. Brasa, which is owned by the same four gentlemen who operate Mallorca and Marbella, offers a dazzling array of well-prepared items, as well as some of the best and most consistent meat that we've had for some time. Given the group's reputation for excellent food and reasonable pricing, though, it should come as little surprise that Brasa, at $35 per person, is a truly good deal and a singular dining experience in Northeast Ohio.
Perhaps it would be best to begin with a description of the character and inner workings of Brasa for any Churrascaria (Brazilian steakhouse) neophytes out there.
Located in the space formerly occupied by the welcome-to-Oz Technicolor, acid-induced restaurant design extravaganza that was Circo/Zibibbo, Brasa offers the diner a more visually subdued, yet culturally intriguing culinary experience than its predecessor. After being seated — which, on both visits, proved to be something of a haphazard, meandering affair — we were greeted by a wonderfully accommodating server who explained the process of dining at Brasa to us, which, because we care, we will now impart to you. Each table holds a cardboard disk with a red side with "no more, thank you" in Portuguese and English and a green side with "me need meat Oog like meat" also in Portuguese and English. (Phrases are based on memory and may bear no resemblance to actual writing on cards.)
After ordering drinks, such as a tasty pitcher of sangria, the traditional Spanish red-wine drink with fruit, fruit juice and, sometimes, brandy or cognac ($23), you're welcome to approach what Brasa terms "the salad bar" — though, in reality, it contains the makings of several meals. At about this time, you'll also be given some wonderful little dense, yet moist cheese biscuits that taste vaguely like soft, warm Cheez-Its. They resemble Cheez-Its, too, in that you can eat them by the handful. Try to refrain. There's a whole lot more food to come.
Having dined sufficiently on shrimp, sushi, imported meats and cheeses, halibut in coconut sauce, black beans, hearts of palm and, oh yes, salad, you then flip the card on your table to green and the real fun begins.
Your server brings to the table a light, fresh salsa (which, incidentally is excellent on the meat), white rice, fried bananas, fried plantains, french fries and yucca flour with bacon (a traditional addition to any Churrascaria meal that you may sprinkle over beans and rice or meat or both). And then, as my companion stated, the meat men cometh.
A steady stream of gentlemen arrive at your table with large, freshly grilled cuts of meat that they carve tableside off of skewers custom designed for use in Brasa's $18,000 imported grill. The meat is hot, succulent and incredibly fresh tasting.
Jesus DeManuel, Brasa's affable host and co-owner, is justifiably proud of his new place's kitchen and its operation. The meat cooler is filled with whole cuts of top-quality beef, pork, lamb and chicken, all of which Brasa sells in two days' time, ensuring that the restaurant constantly offers an excellent product.
Meanwhile, back at the table, the parade of protein continues. The beef dishes, including top sirloin from Brazil, bottom sirloin, bacon-wrapped filet and Parmesan-crusted whole tenderloin, are uniformly excellent, although our beef short ribs were slightly tough. Despite my two decades in the restaurant business, I was surprised to learn that the beef at Brasa is seasoned only with kosher salt, a true testament to the flavor-enhancing qualities of the Churrascaria cooking process.
Leg of lamb and lamb chops are both hot and moist, though probably best left to true lovers of lamb, as their flavor is, well, very lamby. (We acknowledge that lamby may not be a word, but wish to offer that, perhaps, it should be. No, really, look at all the nonsensical terms that have found their way into the OED.)
Among the many excellent meats, our personal favorite is the perfectly spiced pork sausage with a flavor profile that falls somewhere between andouille (a spicy Cajun sausage) and kielbasa (we refuse to define this item to Clevelanders) and a casing cooked to crisp perfection. Brasa's other pork offerings, pork loin and pork tenderloin, are also exceptional and seem to respond to the cooking process as well as or better than the beef.
Lastly, chicken legs are moist on the inside with lovely crisp skin. If you've not yet gotten our less-than-subtle point by now, the meat at Brasa is darn good in almost every instance. Also, it's both enjoyable and unique to have the opportunity to sample such an array of items in one sitting.
As of this writing, DeManuel and his partners are considering opening Brasa for Sunday brunch, a seemingly perfect match given the restaurant's buffet-friendly format. DeManuel also confides plans to open yet another new concept on West Ninth Street next door to Mallorca. He envisions sushi, a raw bar, great food and service, reasonable prices and all of the other hallmarks of the group's eateries.
Given our experience at Brasa, we can't wait to find out what else they have in store.
Brasa Grill, 1900 W. Ninth St., the Warehouse District, Cleveland, (216) 575-0699. Hours: Sun-Thu 4 - 10 p.m., Fri and Sat 4 - 11 p.m.