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Protein palace 

Brazilian Fogo de Chão skewers, sears, slices and seasons meat to please

Listen up, you big-spending clients of Bone's, Chops, Morton's and The Palm. Take note, you lovers of Latin and cowboy cuisines. Hit the road to Buckhead, all you 'cue-addicted suburbanites and sonny bubbas.

Fogo de Chão (pronounced foe-go duh SHOW) isn't exactly a steakhouse. It's not a barbecue barn, either. You'll find not a T-bone or pork rib on the menu. Except for dessert, there is no menu.

Nor is Fogo de Chão an Outback-style concept selling ersatz foreign-ness along with the chemicalized onions. There is no bloomin' onion knockoff. Big hair and cowboy hats are strictly up to the customers.

Fogo's promoters describe the restaurant as a churrascaria, which is Brazilian for a restaurant specializing in meat. Churrasco, meaning barbecue or cookout, refers to large pieces of meat slowly cooked over open fires. Churrascos are an old tradition in the really deep south. "Gauchos," South American cowboys, customarily skewer and grill the kill (primarily beef), hack off hunks and hunker down to eat.

At the Buckhead location (and at Fogo units in Texas and Brazil), costumed waiter-grillers in pleated leather "gaucho" pants and boots do much the same. They season the meat in the kitchen, roast it over banked fires and then parade through the dining rooms with skewers borne aloft, slicing and serving portions as customers summon them. Think of it as high-protein dim sum without the carts. Aside from restaurants in New York and Miami Beach, I know of nothing like it east of the Mississippi.

Wonderful cheese puffs and mediocre vegetable side dishes -- garlic mashed potatoes, fried bananas and yuca -- are included. A salad bar loaded with huge tender asparagus spears, cold salmon, palm hearts, Caesar salad, cold cuts and black beans and rice stands as one of the city's best. Families are welcome. But kids had better be hungry. Adults and youngsters 11 and up pay $35.50 at dinner, $19.50 for lunch. Salad bar-only dinner costs $24.50, lunch $16.50. Children 6 to 10 are charged half price. Kids 5 and under eat free. Desserts and drinks cost extra.

Here's how the fixed-price system works. After being seated and consulting the gold-plated wine list ($980 Chateau Margaux, anyone?) most guests visit the salad bar. It is situated near the bar-bar and front door and can't be missed. Some will be tempted to fill up on delicious Waldorf salad, potato salad, spinach and field greens dressed with exotic oils and vinegars, rare cheeses and the like. Unless you've chosen the salad-only option, don't do it. You're here for three reasons: meat, meat and meat. Save room for the delectable beef roasts, savory lamb legs and seared tenderloins to come.

Each place in the 300-seat restaurant is set with knife, fork, tongs (for seizing sliced meat when it is carved from the skewer) and a green- and red-sided disc that serves as a traffic light. With the red side up, gauchos steer clear except for renewing family-style vegetable plates and bread baskets on each table. Turned to green, the discs act as service magnets, signaling gauchos to surround the table and begin carving the restaurant's dozen or so meat and poultry specialties.

By my second visit, I found it less confusing and more fun to enjoy just two items at a time. Other folks may want to load up, celebrating the bounty of a continent still free of foot-and-mouth disease. Either way, here 's a rundown of unusual choices, given in the order I'd want them again:

Picanha, the house specialty, upper rump roast of beef skewered in half-moon shapes and rubbed with rock salt; this unfamiliar cut of beef combines beefy flavor, tenderness and succulence in every bite;

Cordeiro, leg of lamb marinated with garlic, mint leaves and white wine; lamb chops sometimes appear as well;

Garlic beef, picanha boldly seasoned with garlic and rock salt; this one has a particularly delicious beef-fat flavor;

Filet mignon, bacon-wrapped and delicate on one visit, burned and over-salted the next;

Lombo, pork loin seasoned with lemon pepper and coated with parmesan;

Costela, beef ribs, somewhat greasy by nature but still tasty.

Alcatra (top round), fraldina (sirloin), frango (chicken parts swathed in bacon) and linguica (pork sausages) round out the list of lesser offerings. In general, the meats are tender, flavorful and, due to the use of rock salt (which is rubbed off the surface of the meat after cooking), very salty.

Selections of items such as chicken breast and lamb chops change somewhat from day to day and hour to hour. Beef specialties are consistently available -- and worth your time and the considerable money involved.

Although dessert is hardly necessary, the three big-ticket items I tried were all first rate. Creme brulée is smooth, lovely and caramelized-sugar topped. Flan -- molded egg custard -- is almost as good. Papaya cream, the most distinctive, is a combination of fruit puree blended with vanilla ice cream. It is topped with creme de cassis -- black currant liqueur -- at the table. All are priced around $6. Luckily, most are large enough to split.

Renovation of the former Brookwood Grill no doubt cost big bucks. Clubby and masculine, with dark wood and skewered meat roasting behind glass in a front window, the setting reminds me of McKendrick's, the Park Place beef specialist. Because it is both high end and somewhat casual, with valet parking and reservations offered, the restaurant should attract the business crowd, singles, flush families and Latino expatriates alike.

Service -- currently by churrasqueiros trained in Brazil -- is highly professional, upbeat and about as enveloping as coastal fog. Move a colored disc or finish a plate and somebody notices.

My guess is that Atlantans are going to notice Fogo de Chão.

Contact Elliott Mackle at 404-614-2514 or Elliott.mackle@creativeloafing.com

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