Dining and money — think deals made over power lunches and the persuasive promise of fine wine — have always been inextricably linked. That relationship continues at Fogo de Chāo, the first Westchester County “branch” of the highly successful, international Brazilian steakhouse chain. It’s housed in the Lawyers Building on the corner of Main and Church streets in downtown White Plains — a Romanesque 1926 structure with soaring 80-foot ceilings, vast, imposing stone columns and a grand staircase leading to the first floor, as befits the former home of the Westchester Title and Trust Co.
The most recent occupant of the property was, however, a branch of JPMorgan Chase and Co., where I remember all too well my last visit, just before the branch closed in 2019.
Me (handing over check and ID to cashier): “Good morning, may I cash a check please?”
Cashier (swiping check and viewing terminal): “No.”
Me: “Oh? Why is that?”
Cashier: “Sir, you have no money in your account.”
Frankly, I wasn’t sorry to see the bank go.
A first encounter with the folks at Fogo, which opened in April, was more encouraging. Larissa, who greeted us, introduced herself as part of the customer relations team and promptly led my guest and me to a generously sized, well-spaced table along the street wall, away from the bustle but still in touch with the action. Once seated, a panoply of beaming servers approached the table at short intervals, all adding their welcomes. Each asked us how we were, how we’d been, how we were feeling this evening and what we were thinking — thinking about eating and drinking, that is to say.
Most important of all, every staff member who stopped by the table to say “hello” inquired with the utmost interest whether we had ever been to a branch of Fogo de Chaō before. (We had.)
If the smiles and salutations represented staff training by rote, so be it. It came across as friendly and entirely genuine, if a little repetitive. Fast forward to Azul, who was going to be our principal server for the evening and was going to come within a hair’s breadth of killing us with kindness. She was also inaptly named, because there was nothing “blue” about her character. Azul was the very soul of cheerfulness and optimism and, if her many explanations, observations and homespun philosophy ever got in the way of the job in hand (“Azul, that is very interesting,” we longed to tell her, “but we’re hungry and would love to just get on and order,”) after a couple of Fogo’s potent, properly mixed caipirinhas, Azul could have chattered away all night and we would have just kicked back, knocked back another of Brazil’s national cocktails and sighed contentedly.
But we did eventually order. The shtick here is the set-price Fogo “Churrasco Experience,” an all-you-can-eat lunch or dinner comprising a wide choice of meats, cooked over the churrasco (white hot) grill and brought to the table on vertical skewers to be sliced individually for each diner. (The name Fogo de Chāo, meaning “ground fire,” refers to the traditional gaúcho method of roasting meats over an open fire.)
A round coaster, given to each guest on being seated, lets the army of booted and suited gaúchos (as the all-male, meat handlers are called) know whether to stop by the table with their long skewers of meat and rapier-sharp carving knives, or to continue on. One side of the coaster is green: “Yes please, I want more meat”; the other is red: “Not now, I’m taking a pause.” It’s a simple system, fun to operate and, barring the odd backup of gaúchos or an oversight in passing us by, it mostly works. Irresistible, cheese-filled mini popovers, called paō de queijo, along with side dishes of creamy mashed potatoes, yucca (tapioca) fries and caramelized bananas — are included in the price, the dishes replaced or refreshed as often as you wish.
In addition to the meats and side dishes and included in the price of the “Experience,” guests can also pile their plates high at the Market Table, an impressive buffet running the length of the central seating area, groaning with crudités, roasted vegetables, cheeses, charcuterie, lavish salads, chickpea stews and a great deal more, all of it fresh and lively.
As if all this were not enough, the menu is supplemented by a selection of “Indulgent Cuts” steaks, such as Wagyu rib eye and dry-aged Tomahawk ancho, as well as regular entrées, including a couple of fish and vegetarian dishes, all individually priced. What’s more, the Market Table can be enjoyed on its own for $15, something of a steal weekdays. But for my money, if you’re headed to Fogo at all, to order anything other than the “Experience” — $39.95 at lunch, $60.95 at dinner — is somehow to miss the point.
The all-you-can-eat Brazilian churrasco, or rodizio, is not a new concept, of course. It’s 20 years or more since restaurants like Fogo de Chāo, begin to proliferate outside of Brazil, so the restaurant cannot survive on novelty value alone. Which is to say, the churrasco needs to be excellent. And a lot of it was on the night we dined, especially the picanha (top sirloin), its light charred crust packed with flavor; and succulent lamb chops, blushing pink, wondrously tender. Juicy chicken legs, the size of a baby’s fist, also passed muster but a couple of the cuts, the bottom sirloin and the ancho, were dry and overcooked, despite our asking for all the beef to be sliced as rare as possible.
Desserts are not included in the “Experience,” but try them if you appetite allows it. They are worth the supplement. We enjoyed a gorgeously moist, molten chocolate cake served with vanilla ice cream and an ambrosial, light-as-air papaya cream, served with a sophisticated swirl of cassis liqueur.
At the foot of the menu are calorie counts for every item, although not the “Experience” itself. (It’s impossible, of course, to gauge just how much meat any one diner will consume.) It is riveting, not to say slightly terrifying, to discover that a 24-ounce rib-eye steak weighs in at 1,872 calories or that a pineapple mint lemonade, consisting of nothing more than pineapple, lemon, mint and soda, weighs in at 160. But while I know that in the age of obesity it is prudent — and in many places, the law — to provide such details, the idea of brushing every pleasure with the stain of guilt seems to me a joyless exercise.
Eating out is meant to be fun — and never more so than now as we swarm back gratefully into restaurants.
My advice? Come to Fogo with friends, a sense of humor, some patience, a vast appetite and avoid reading the rubric on the menu. Oh, and tell the gaúchos you want only the juiciest cuts. You’ll have a wonderful time.
For more, visit fogodechao.com.