Adventure Meats

Rise to the challenge of rodizio at Ipanema Brazilian Grill.

It wasn't long ago that Seattleites were mistaking the natural blue of blue corn tortillas for mold and hearing "topless" when their server attempted to explain "tapas." Marco Casas Beaux, the Italian-Argentine restaurateur who recently opened the Ipanema Brazilian Grill, was taking some risks back in 1990 with his first local restaurant, Madison Park's Cactus (he's since sold it), and he certainly isn't playing it safe at his newest venture, which has taken over the space formerly occupied by Wolfgang Puck's. "I lose about 20 percent of the people who walk in the door," Casas Beaux tells me one morning just before lunch begins. "They don't understand the format," he says, shaking his head and rolling his eyes. As he goes through his explanation of a rodizio, I'm reminded of my marine biologist father's attempts to explain the bathymetric distribution of hermit crabs to me. When you're fully immersed in something, it's easy to forget how completely unfamiliar it might be to someone else. Although I don't think the overly wordy, graphics-heavy menu does Ipanema any favors, the rodizio concept certainly isn't hard to comprehend. It's unfamiliar, yes, but it's certainly not complicated. Think of it as an all-you-can-eat barbecue buffet crossed with a user-friendly game of Red Light, Green Light. You're given a disk, and when you flip it to the green side, wandering passadores (imagine the Edward Scissorhands of meat) bring skewered cuts of tenderloin, tri-tip, pork, lamb, fish, shrimp, and the like—as well as grilled pineapple and roasted corn—to your table, where they carve off a small portion at a time for you to enjoy with the Brazilian side dishes (fried bananas, rice, black beans), all for a fixed $34.95 price ($24.95 at lunch). Flip to the red side when you've had enough for a while, back to green when you want more. There is also a fully exploitable cold salad bar with lots of colorful fruits, cold cuts, and leafy greens that can be exotically enhanced with a Brazilian passion fruit dressing. Casas Beaux knows that the price also scares people away, but he thinks that's ridiculous, too. Considering that you're given full license to enjoy the all-night stop-and-go traffic of a dozen varieties of meat—and considering how the bill can add up at a steak house—it's actually a good value. IF YOU'RE ON a first date and you can't find much common ground, rodizio service can double as a conversation piece; and if handsome men wielding sharp knives don't add flair to a girls' night out, you might need new girlfriends. But on the other hand, all that coming and going doesn't suit an intimate conversation or a business meeting very well—and neither does the loud Portuguese pop music that's pumped out over the PA system. Because Casas Beaux imported his passadores and some of his floor staff and chefs from Brazil and other far-away countries like California and Texas, there can be a tableside language barrier to go with the tableside carvings, and even the American servers can be awkward and less than helpful. But at each of my three visits over the past month, service has improved, salad bar and bar menu offerings have become more and more interesting, and the high quality of the rodizio items has remained consistent. Service, even when a little awkward, is incredibly quick—the meat has been roasting all day; you don't have to wait for it to be cooked after you order it. Even with the ghost of Wolfgang Puck lingering in the mosaic tile decor—which Casas Beaux points out is heavily reminiscent of South and Latin American decor—Ipanema is intriguing, especially if you're an enthusiastic carnivore or still on Atkins. A rich aroma of the mesquite used to fuel the slow roasting grills hangs in the air all day long, evoking beach barbecues and campfires. The mostly naturally raised meat, which Casas Beaux gets from Australia and New Zealand, is, where appropriate of course, perfectly rendered to a nice medium rare. Most of the beef is not marinated at all but simply given a pinch of salt and allowed to while away the hours over smoky charcoal grills. Indeed, with the other 80 percent of walk-ins becoming more voracious, Casas Beaux isn't concerned with the ones who get away. "In Seattle, the next major city is in another country," says Casas Beaux, laughing. Although he insists he just creates restaurants for himself so that he can enjoy the food he misses, the well-traveled multicultural owner of other outside-the-box restaurants like the Buenos Aires Grill and the now-defunct Gitano seems to enjoy giving us a challenge. Trust me, this is one that's easy to take on. Ipanema Brazilian Grill, 1225 First Ave., 206-957-8444, DOWNTOWN. Lunch 11:30 a.m.–2 p.m. Mon.–Sat; dinner 5–10 p.m. Mon.–Thurs. and Sun., 5–11 p.m. Fri.–Sat.

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