Fogo de Chao

It's not every day that I like to totally pig out, but I made an exception last weekend for Fogo de Chao. Fogo de Chao is a churrascaria, a Brazilian restaurant where you'll find different kinds of savory meat served on spits -- all you can eat for a fixed price. As you can read on Fogo de Chao's web site, they cook their beef the "Gaucho" way. Ideally this would mean that they would grill their meat over open fires, but somehow I doubt that's how the meat at Fogo de Chao is actually being cooked.

I imagine scheduling reservations at Fogo de Chao is one of the more difficult sciences in this world. It's fixed price at $45 a person, all you can eat, and there's no time limit, so I wasn't surprised that we had to wait for our 8 PM reservation. It didn't matter much though, since we got lucky and found an empty table at the way-too-small-for-a-two-floor-restaurant bar.

While the hostesses seemed overwhelmed, they were very eager to please, regardless of the bartenders' comments about how inexperienced they were. There was a whole team of people whose main job was to get people seated and clear tables. Our friends were running a little late and still hadn't arrived when it was time for us to be seated, but the hostesses sat us anyway, which I wasn't expecting.

Your server greets you the instant you're seated, although you probably won't see him/her a whole lot the rest of the night, unless your wine bottle gets empty. Once they explain "the system", you're pretty much off and running and on your own. The waiter directs you to a salad bar and bread, which you actually don't have to eat. While the salad and antipasto aren't bad, it's not the reason you're there. Rather than visiting the salad bar at the beginning of the meal, I'd recommend taking a break half way through the meal and having a salad as a palate cleanser.

You can control how often waiters (or gauchos as the restaurant calls them) stop at your table with food by flipping over your coaster (I don't think it was actually a coaster though, because if you put your glass on it, the gauchos wouldn't see it) to green or red. I don't think I need to explain which color means you want more food. It was unclear to me whether or not the coaster actually meant anything though, since there were times when the gauchos brought food to my companions and I regardless of our coasters. Basically, as long as there's one person with the coaster flipped to green, they will stop by and offer the entire table food.

I had visited a restaurant very much like this when I vacationed in Aruba two years ago, and I pretty much had the same experience there as I had at Fogo de Chao. The service is prompt and attentive, the wine list awarded yet expensive, and the food inconsistant. You can get a great slice of meat in one gaucho's visit to your table, and a completely different cut in another visit, and regardless of whether or not you ask for a medium rare slice, or a well done slice, most of the time you don't get quite what you ask for.

I could go into detail on each cut of meat, but I'll save you the time and just tell you what the tastier cuts were. The juicy filet was very good, as was the flavorful lamb (in either leg or chop form), which I thought was the best that Fogo de Chao had to offer. It was the most flavorful, tender and interesting by far. I also liked the bottom sirloin. There was definitely an overuse of salt on all of the cuts of meat and I'm not the only one to notice this.

Dessert? Who would have room other than a professional eater?

Our final bill for the four of us was close to $325. My heart skipped a beat when I saw that bill, but I guess what was I expecting when we ordered two bottles of wine for $60 a piece, and each of our meals cost $44.50 (update: the price has since been raised to $48.50)? Add on the 10% DC dining tax and you've got a nice hole that's been dug in my dining budget this month. Looks like I'll be writing about some cheap eats in the near future.

My final opinion...

I'd rather go to Ray's the Steaks before going to Fogo de Chao.  At least there, I can order a steak, have it cooked to order and not feel like a pig at the end of the night. Plus, my wallet will be a little heavier.

Fogo de Chao
1101 Pennsylvania Ave
Washington, DC 20004
(202) 347-4668

Lunch: Monday-Friday 11:30am-2:30pm
Dinner: Monday-Thursday 5pm-10pm; Friday 5pm- 10:30pm; Saturday 4:30pm-10:30pm; Sunday 4pm- 9:30pm

Dress Code: Business Casual - I saw people in nice jeans.
Parking: Valet and street if you can find it.
Allowed at the bar.
Closest Metro:
Federal Triangle
Reservations: Taken.
Baby-Friendly Rating: 1 out of 4 diapers. LOL. Yeah. No. Too upscale.

Ray's The Steaks

UPDATE April 1 2006:

Rays is back open after a weeks hiatus. See here for more info or continue reading this post.

I only started going to Ray's the Steaks recently -- maybe it's because of the whole Virginia/crossing-the-river factor or because of all the attention that Ray's has been getting lately. I guess I just figured it was about time I tried it. So far, each dinner at Ray's the Steaks was been wonderful! I definitely ate some of the best steaks I've ever had in this area, and they were far better than Morton's or Ruth Chris. So what made my meals so good you ask? Well, let me explain.

I like to think of Ray's The Steaks as the anti-Morton's. It's unpretentious and unassuming. The dining room reminds me of the Ye Olde College Diner at Penn State, and is anything but swanky. You won't find big-wig execs with their own wine locker taking up space in the dining room with their expense accounts. What you will find is fresh, unadulterated beef and people who appreciate it...and a lack of expensive a la carte sides.

Our first night there, I had the NY Strip with silky mushroom cream sauce and blue cheese crumbles. I have to say though, of all the steaks I tried at Rays, this was my least favorite. Not that it was bad by any means, it just wasn't as flavorful or tender as the steaks I tried in my later visits.

Also that first night, Amy ordered a buttery tenderloin with mushroom brandy cream sauce, which melted in my mouth with every bite that she allowed me have.  If I were to describe any or Ray's steaks as "sexy", it would be this one. I preferred how Amy ordered her filet with just the mushroom sauce (and minus the blue cheese), mainly because I think that the blue cheese masked the flavor of the beef too much.

Before our steaks came though, I had to try a cup of the simply-prepared crab bisque. When it first came, it looked like just a normal cup of soup, but once I put my spoon into the creamy pink broth, I realized that this was no normal crab bisque. The broth was full of jumbo lump crab meat, and when I mean full, I mean "Would you like some bisque with your crab?" Excellent.

Another night, I started with the clam chowder, which was different than I'm used to, because it had corn and carrots in it. The broth was not quite as thick as most chowders, but that probably just means that it wasn't made with heavy cream and a ton of flour. I prefer the crab bisque.

But back to the meat. I have to say I enjoyed the hanger steak the most. Honestly, you won't find a better steak for $20. Please go and order this medium rare with nothing on it. You won't regret it.

And if you think that's a good night, we ordered the bacon-wrapped fillets, which ended up only costing us $16. Add to that the fact that you get creamed spinach and mashed potatoes included on the side, and you have yourself quite a good deal.

Here's just a little tip for those of you that have never been to Ray's. I'd recommend that you order your steak a little more done than you usually like it. Most places, I order my steaks medium-rare, mainly to keep the cook from overcooking it. At Ray's it's more likely that your steak will be undercooked. That was just my experience the few times I was there and from talking to others, they notice that as well.

Never once at Ray's did I feel rushed or like I had to leave. This is mainly because the kitchen is ultra efficient. Minutes after we ordered, our appetizers were delivered. Not ten minutes after we were done with our appetizers, our steaks came out like clockwork. The first time we ate at Ray's the Steaks, I didn't realize until I got back in the car that we were in and out in forty-five minutes. Another time, Amy and I lingered over glasses of wine and the complimentary hot chocolate included at the end of your meal.

I'm sorry to have to say though, at the time I'm writing this, I've read that Ray's in Arlington will be closing March 26th until further notice. I don't know if this is because of the upcoming opening of a new location in Silver Spring, or if it's because Michael Landrum, the ecclesiastic of unadulterated, unpretentious food, is done with his Arlington location and moving on to bigger and better things. I hope it's not the latter.

Of course it might be due to the fact that recently the reservation policies of Ray's the Steaks have come under fire (okay, maybe I'm dramatizing that a bit.) Complaints about time limits for seatings before 7 p.m. (90 minutes), and the requirement that you call the day of the reservation by 1 p.m. to confirm have some people bitching about how arduous these policies are. (Yeah, I'm sick of this topic too but I've got to mention it otherwise the comments will be dominated by this.)

But despite these policies, the restaurant is still booked weeks in advance. Don't like it you say? Then don't go! It just makes it easier for me to get a reservation. Yeah, so the chef/owner Michael Landrum's a bit uptight about the seating at his restaurant, so what? Trust me. Things could be worse.

These policies give Michael a better turnout for reservations, but they also guarantee that 1) you won't have to wait for your table when you arrive and 2) your check will be $10 cheaper at the end of the night. Amy and I were able to dine at Ray's for about $90 each time. With wine and appetizers that's pretty damn good. Glasses of wine are cheap considering how generous the pours are, at about $7 each, and the steak prices range from $15 to $35 depending on the cut or size of the steak.

This topic also came up in Tom Sietsema's chat today, and supposedly, Michael Landrum told Tom "I'm closing because I have to find a way to bring the restaurant back to the neighborhood, where it belongs, even if it involves reformatting my operations." I'd speculate that Michael Landrum will be changing his reservation system and possibly more, but I'll update this post when I have more specific information.

So in the mean time, go to Ray's while you still can and hope that it reopens soon after it closes.

Ray's the Steaks
1725 Wilson Blvd.
Arlington, VA 22209
(703) 841-7297

Tuesday - Saturday: 6PM to 10 PM

Dress Code: Casual
Parking: There is a parking lot but it can get crowded.
Not Allowed.
Closest Metro:
Rosslyn or Courthouse
Reservations: Not taken. First come, first serve.
Baby-Friendly Rating: 4 out of 4 diapers. Laid back and casual environment. There are less tables now, and there is plenty of room for that child seat.

Sam and Harry's Half-Price Wine

Ok, I've never been to Sam and Harry's before, but I will be this weekend. I just found out that they have been taking half off every bottle of wine on their menu on Friday and Saturday nights from July 4 until Labor Day. You only have two weekends left!

Sam & Harry's
1200 19th Street, NW
Washington, DC 20036

(202) 296-4333
Mon-Fri: 11:30 a.m. - 10:30 p.m.
Sat: 5:30 p.m. - 10:30 p.m.

Complimentary valet parking after 5:30 p.m.