Our mission is to review restaurants in and around Ann Arbor, but we occasionally stray if a place is both good and sufficiently unusual. Gaucho Brazilian Steakhouse, in Northville, meets that standard. Gaucho was started in September 2007 by Neto Fernandes, who worked at a similar steakhouse in Chicago, and Eliane Turner, a local who felt Southeast Michigan needed one. It’s a Brazilian churrascaria, which is like an American steakhouse, only they serve a lot of different cuts of beef.
One difference is they’re all you can eat. Start with the salad bar, featuring cold salads, sliced meats, smoked fish, and pickled vegetables at minimum. That’s just a warmup to the main event, though—the meat. Churrascarias are really about the large variety of simply-grilled meats, which gauchos (in this context, meat-servers) bring to your table on big sword-like skewers and slice off to your taste, inundating you with meat until you beg them to stop.
OK, not really – but if you’re unfamiliar with the process, it takes some getting used to. Each patron is given a cardboard disk, with one side green and the other side red. When the green side is up, they bring you meat, and slice it onto your plate. When the red side is up, they don’t. In theory. In practice, though, two things happen: first, when you turn the disk green-side up, you can get swarmed by gauchos, and second, they don’t always notice the red disk, especially if someone else at the table is on green.
The key, as Gaucho’s assistant manager Sergio reinforced, is to “take your time.” Try one or two at a time, and wave the other gauchos away. They’ll be back. They won’t run out of any one cut (the restaurant has a dedicated “meat manager” to make sure that doesn’t happen), so you’ll always get another shot at it. (Incidentally, they can cycle skewers approximately every five minutes.) Also – many Americans don’t realize this, and the waiters don’t always remember to ask – you can request the doneness you want. Though even if you’re normally a rare beef fiend, it’s worthwhile to try the more-done outside of some of these cuts.
There are some challenges to operating a churrascaria in the US. You have to import some ingredients from Brazil, and you have to buy US beef in large pieces and cut them Brazilian-style at the restaurant. We wanted to find out how Gaucho compared to Brazilian churrascarias, so we included a Brazilian friend in our crew for the evening. His verdict: some things are much better in Brazil, but it was surprisingly good. The non-Brazilians (some of us experienced with churrascarias) were even more favorably impressed.
Start off your meal with a refreshing caipirinha (Brazil’s national cocktail), made with cachaça (distilled fermented sugarcane), sugar, and lime. Our Brazilian friend declared Gaucho’s version to be very good.
As churrascaria salad bars go, it’s relatively light, but it’s still a meal in itself. If you’re not careful, you won’t have any room for the meat service. Salad bar offerings included soup, salmon, potato salad, apple salad, roasted peppers, artichokes, asparagus, olives, prosciutto, cheese, and mushroom risotto.
At Gaucho, the first thing they bring you is a basket of hot pao de queijo, puffy cheese rolls made with cassava flour, were on the mild-flavored side for Brazil. When you finish the salad bar, they’ll also bring rice, black beans, fried bananas, mashed potatoes, and (if you know to ask for it) farofa, which is toasted spiced manioc flour. They were all good, but nothing special.
The meat, however, is special. And there’s something primal and sensuous about getting it straight from the grill on a skewer. Gaucho serves 16 different cuts of beef, pork, lamb, chicken, and shrimp. The other items are marinated (they wouldn’t divulge much about the marinades), but the beef is seasoned only with kosher salt. When they serve the table, they’ll tell you the marinade is, and offer a flyer with photos to help you know what you’re eating. According to Sergio, Brazilians tend to come in with specific favorites they focus on, while Americans try everything they can. Some highlights:
Alcatra (top sirloin, approximately): flavorful and perfectly done, even our Brazilian friend was impressed by it.
Picanha (rump roast): the iconic churrascaria cut, crispy and crackling on the outside while tender within. A group favorite, though apparently even better
Cordeiro (leg of lamb): marinated, well done with a nice crust, and somewhat controversial within our group (though those who liked it liked it a lot).
Costela de Boi (beef ribs): carried on a wooden platter rather than a skewer, these had cooked slowly for a long time, and the fat was well cooked down.
Costela de Cordeiro (lamb chops): lovely, and perfectly tender.
Linguica (sausage): imported from Brazil, salty, flavorful and moist, but not spicy.
Lomo (pork loin): served both as slices off a large piece, and as small pieces in parmesan, it was tasty but a bit dry.
Shrimp: while out of place (one of our friends likened it to “bringing a knife to a gunfight”), the shrimp were excellent and a nice break from red meat.
Other items include filet mignon and chicken wrapped in bacon, baby back ribs, chicken thighs, and a couple other cuts of beef. Everyone’s tastes differ, so the key is to try as much as you can and see what you personally prefer.
You’ll probably want to split these, because they’re substantial, especially after all that meat. We tried the house-made flan and chocolate mousse with Bailey’s. Both were good, but the flan was everyone’s favorite, creamy smooth and with some weight and a light eggy flavor to it.
We don’t always include pricing due to space and menu complexity, but here we will because it’s simple: dinners were $43.99 each, all you can eat. They serve the same format at lunch, but at $21.99 with fewer meat selections. Beverages and desserts are extra.
Lisa and Joe have been blogging about food in the Ann Arbor area (and points beyond) since 2004. Check them out at www.kitchenchick.com.