Hands down, Chima Steakhouse is the best-dressed Brazilian outpost around.
From the foyer with its outsized wooden chaise to the dining room -- set off with topiary, a glass-fronted kitchen, a wall of wine and a two-way panel showing Brazilian music videos -- the fresh face makes an impressive fashion statement. Part of a small chain based in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Chima (pronounced SHE-ma) covers a lot of ground: 12,000 square feet, with just under 400 seats.
As does the competition, this meat market specializes in skewers of beef, pork and more, carved tableside by a dozen or so gauchos, all of whom hail from Brazil and all of whom wear the traditional loose-fitting trousers of the South American cowboy. And like other such churrascarias, or steakhouses, this one lets diners control the pace of the meal: Each guest receives a paper disk that is orange on one side, black on the other. Orange is a signal to the gauchos to keep the meat coming; black tells them to stop, at least for the moment. The price of admission ($43.90 a head at dinner, $24.90 at lunch) includes an all-you-can-eat salad bar stretching to dozens of choices. In a sign of the times, servers rely on Palm Pilots rather than notepads to place drink and dessert orders. The waiters are an enthusiastic and helpful bunch.
I've saved the worst for last. What sounds like carnivore heaven tastes an awful lot like purgatory. Must the New York strip be so dull, the bacon-wrapped chicken so vapid? I kept my card flipped to orange, hoping to find a standout among the dozen or so skewers; the only protein of interest seemed to be the rosemary-spiked lamb and crusty pork ribs. Otherwise, the meat lacked personality. And that endless salad bar is not the gap-filler of anyone's dreams. Everything I tried seemed to be leached of flavor, be it the fresh asparagus, the potato salad or the black bean soup. A side dish of cheesy creamed spinach (the package deal also includes mashed potatoes) arrived cold in the center.
The meal ended on an unexpected high: Chima's valet parking turned out to be free.
--Tom Sietsema (Jan. 10, 2007)