Bring on the skewers: an exotic Brazilian feast at Leblon

by Brian Clarey

When I was a cash-poor college student, occasionally a set of circumstances would unfold: ten bucks in my pocket, a ride out to the suburbs and a gnawing craving for meat on the bone. When these forces aligned, I would head out to a place called Luther’s, an American steakhouse, for something they called the ‘rib feast,’ a meal that entailed an endless supply of pork and beef ribs brought to the table by a pimpled teenage staff dressed in cheap imitation cowboy duds.

The ribs weren’t that great but there were plenty of them, and generally my friends and I would gorge ourselves until we broke out in meat sweats and slouched down in our chairs.

I mention this because I recently had a similar experience, although at a much more refined level, at Leblon Churrascaria, one of a small handful of traditional Brazilian steakhouses in the state. But unlike Luther’s, Leblon brings a high dose of quality and a greater range of quantity to the fare.

Leblon’s owners Walter Vanucci and Ilma Freitas spent their formative years in southern Brazil in places like Rio de Janeiro and Minas Gerais. The history of the region mirrors that of the American western frontier, with a mining industry based on gold and precious gems while pistoleros and gauchos roamed the range, driving all manner of livestock across the plains and cooking huge slabs of meat over open fires.

And like many American steakhouses Walter and Ilma attempt to capture the essence of the era, the difference being that their restaurant manages to do so with much more authenticity and flair.

Dinner at Leblon, like at most sit-down restaurants, entails interaction with a waiter. The house drink, a sort of daiquiri made with cane rum called a caipirinha, is generally offered tableside and the waiter can answer questions about everything the kitchen prepares. However there is no menu here: the meal is price-fixed, about thirty dollars, and comes with unlimited trips to a salad bar that is perhaps the best in town, with items like chick pea and tuna salad, roasted eggplant, whole steamed asparagus stalks, fresh mozzarella cheese, sliced prosciutto and salami, brie with honey and pistachios, oven-dried tomato salad and fresh (not pickled) hearts of artichoke and palm.

The salad buffet line also includes three hot dishes nightly, a salmon dish, rice and a flavorful black bean stew called feijoada, the national dish of Brazil.

Though the salad bar is a gourmand’s delight in and of itself, it would be a mistake to fill up on its wonders. That’s because at Leblon, costumed gauchos roam the floors, wearing vaguely ‘“Star Trek’”-ish baggy pants tucked into shiny boots, sporting guaica belts and the faixa sash, brandishing long skewers of roasted meats of at least a dozen varieties each night. On my visit the gauchos brought to our table filet Mignon wrapped in bacon, prime rib, barbecue spare ribs, roasted beef ribs, two kinds of pork loin, sausage, chicken, flank steak, roasted lamb, bacon-wrapped turkey breast and top sirloin with or without garlic marinade. It is a veritable meat feast that often leaves the diner with a feeling of incredulousness: ‘“I can’t believe I ate the whole thing.’”

They’ll keep bringing the meat unless you turn a small medallion on the tabletop to the red side.

‘“Who gets us the worst is 12 and 13-year-old boys,’” the waiter says. ‘“We had one who sat and ate for an hour after his grandparents had finished.’”

Walter and Ilma opened Leblon in Greensboro ten years ago as a traditional continental restaurant, with menus and dinner specials. But in the summer of 2004 they decided to come full circle, back to their Brazilian roots, and embrace the concept of the churrascaria.

‘“We wanted to do something new,’” says Walter, an elegant and well-dressed man made tired around the eyes by years in the restaurant business. ‘“We wanted to reinvent ourselves and to do something that was traditionally Brazilian. Both of us were kind of skeptical for a while.’” But, he says, the concept has taken off with Greensboro diners who may not speak Portugese, but can get on board with the idea of an unlimited supply of meat.

Side dishes include fried bananas and both sweet and white mashed potatoes. The waiter will also bring small bowls of Brazilian Viniagrette with diced onions; chimichurri, which is an herb and garlic Brazilian steak sauce; and farofa, made from yucca flour and sprinkled on meats or added to the feijoda to add flavor and texture.

Leblon also has a dessert tray with three dishes that originate in their kitchen, though after ingesting the flesh of so many different animals the staff generally recommends the papaya crème, a light dish of papaya puree mixed with vanilla ice cream and a touch of crème de cassis that can help ease the sweats when the meat fever kicks in.

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