A FOODIE TRIP TO BRAZIL— NO PASS­PORT NEEDED

En­joy cul­ture and cuisine at Rodizio Grill

RSWLiving - - CULINARY - BY GINA BIRCH

Rov­ing gau­chos (Brazil­ian cow­boys) wield­ing large knives and even larger skew­ers of meat are one of the many high­lights of Rodizio Grill at Co­conut Point Mall in Es­tero. Billed as Amer­ica’s first Brazil­ian steakhouse, or chur­ras­caria, the restau­rant opened lo­cally and to much an­tic­i­pa­tion in April. With room for nearly 300, in­clud­ing water­side seat­ing, din­ing here still has a cozy, friendly feel whether it’s date night or a big cel­e­bra­tion—Rodizio does cel­e­bra­tions well.

When founder Ivan Utr­era worked for Pep­siCo in Latin Amer­ica, each time com­pany ex­ec­u­tives would meet him in Brazil he would take them to a chur­rasco-style restau­rant. He re­mem­bers that they al­ways asked, “How come we don’t have any­thing like this in the States?” That stayed in Utr­era’s mind.

He worked on a busi­ness plan, got in­vestors from Brazil and took a leap of faith. “I heard from a lot of peo­ple, ‘You’re gonna fail, you can’t make money on that con­cept,’ ” he says.

But it has been 20 years; he has opened restau­rants across the coun­try and is clos­ing in on the $50 mil­lion mark.

If you’ve never been to a Brazil­ian steakhouse, it’s an ex­pe­ri­ence you must put on your foodie bucket list, and Rodizio is the spot. Some big­ger chains of­fer this style of din­ing, but they are not Brazil­ian owned and don’t have the same soul.

Many of the recipes came from Utr­era’s mother, who flew from Brazil to Utah to help get the first Rodizio off the ground. “She was pulling her hair out, say­ing they will never learn,” Utr­era re­calls with a laugh.

But they did learn. The restau­rant doesn’t have a menu. It of­fers just two price op­tions: $24.99 for the salad bar, $10 more for un­lim­ited meat.

The sig­na­ture salad bar is mas­sive, fea­tur­ing some 40 gourmet sal­ads, meats, cheeses, mar­i­nated veg­eta­bles and the like, many of which change daily. The neigh­bor­ing hot bar has fa­vorites like Brazil­ian black beans, rice, yucca, pasta and col­lard greens.

Ex­ec­u­tive chef Duda Goulart says, “I try to keep the recipes very tra­di­tional. Some are the owner’s fam­ily recipes, some are my mom’s and my grandma’s.”

The salad and hot bars are per­fect for veg­e­tar­i­ans who ca­vort with car­ni­vores. But meat is the main course and you can eat as much of it as your heart de­sires and stom­ach can han­dle. Here’s how it works. Gau­chos (servers) pa­rade through the din­ing room with skew­ers of meat and sharp­ened knives. When ready to join the party, you sig­nal

by turn­ing a wooden block on your ta­ble to green. When you are fin­ished or need a break, you flip it to red. When you are ready to throw in the towel, you put the block in a neu­tral po­si­tion. Those are the only rules. Now you are en­cour­aged to have fun and try new things.

Not only is the beef butchered in-house, the staff is trained in the proper way to skewer and cut the meat to en­hance its fla­vors,” Goulart says. He calls it “the to­tal pack­age.”

The meat is cooked so that no mat­ter what tem­per­a­ture you like yours, the gau­cho will be able to slice the per­fect piece of tri-tip, ten­der­loin, top sir­loin or beef flap, to name a few. Also skew­ered are pork, fish and fowl, along with a wildly pop­u­lar mar­i­nated pineap­ple, per­fect with the salty ham.

Goulart is from the south of Brazil, where, he says, “I’ve

done this [chur­rasco] all my life. As I was a kid, I was do­ing the bar­beque on the week­ends when the fam­ily was to­gether.”

He uses only rock salt for sea­son­ing, ex­plain­ing, “We be­lieve in bring­ing to our guests the dif­fer­ent fla­vors of the mus­cles, the pro­tein. The cuts of meat, they all have a unique taste.”

The sheer na­ture of this restau­rant puts it on the radar for gluten­free din­ers. It’s about 95 per­cent gluten free, ac­cord­ing to Goulart, who has even per­fected a mouth­wa­ter­ing gluten-free cheese bread.

The strug­gle is real, but you must save room for the home­made desserts: flan pas­tries, crème brûlée and cheese­cake made with guava paste.

A brunch buf­fet is of­fered Fri­day, Satur­day and Sun­day. The bar serves mi­mosas and bloody Marys. For a spe­cial treat, try the san­gria: or­ange, lime and le­mon topped with guaraná (Brazil­ian soda), melon liqueur, triple sec, brandy and red or white wine. It’s an­other fam­ily recipe.

Other drinks in­clude a sinfully creamy limeade, Brazil­ian so­das and the fa­mous caipir­inha, the coun­try’s sig­na­ture cock­tail made with lime, sugar and cachaça (a Brazil­ian liquor dis­tilled from sugar cane). You’ll even find a se­lec­tion of Brazil­ian wines. Goulart says his coun­try is cur­rently pro­duc­ing some of the best tan­nat in the world.

The word ale­gria is used here a lot, and al­though it’s dif­fi­cult to trans­late, Goulart gives it a try: “It’s hap­pi­ness but more of a warm Christ­mas feel­ing, fam­ily, joy, ful­fill­ment … put it all in a blender.”

That’s what Utr­era was go­ing for when he cre­ated the Rodizio din­ing ex­pe­ri­ence, and we say mis­sion ac­com­plished.

The meat is cooked so that no mat­ter what tem­per­a­ture you like yours, the gau­cho will be able to slice the per­fect piece of tri-tip, ten­der­loin, top sir­loin or beef flap, to name a few.

The au­then­tic chur­rasco- style restau­rant is a first in Southwest Florida. Gau­chos ( be­low) en­hance the ta­ble ex­pe­ri­ence.

Rodizio Grill’s Rosana Tor­mena Utr­era and founder Ivan Utr­era ( left) still use home recipes pro­vided by Ivan Utr­era’s mother when the con­cept first opened in Utah. The na­tional firm con­tin­ues its fine- din­ing tra­di­tion in Es­tero with ex­ec­u­tive chef Duda Goulart ( be­low left), ser­vice man­ager Re­nata Zo­cante and general man­ager Takeo Ya­mashita.

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