Beef Disadvantage

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:19

    Beef Disadvantage I used to do some two-person team debate back in high school, an activity that, at least as it's practiced on the national level, is more like fantasy gaming than rational policy analysis. One of my favorite arguments was called the "Beef Disadvantage," a popular position to take on the negative because it can be argued against any policy that has the effect of increasing economic growth. The Beef Disadvantage runs as follows: Plan X causes economic growth, which results in increased prosperity. When people are more prosperous, they eat more beef. And increased beef consumption results in a veritable plague of environmental and humanitarian horrors, including soil erosion (as a result of overgrazing); destruction of the Amazon rain forests (as a result of slash-and-burn agriculture practiced by the large cattle ranches to create new grazing land); reduction in surplus grain donations to needy Third World nations (as a result of increased grain demand from ranchers); increases in preventable death and disability (as a result of increased consumption of cholesterol); increased risk of antibiotic-resistant diseases (as a result of antibiotics mixed into cattle feed); and global warming (resulting from increased methane gas in the atmosphere caused by bovine flatulence), which in turn results in the inevitable sinking of Manhattan and L.A. beneath the deep blue sea. And that's not to mention the potential worldwide outbreak of bovine spongiform encephalopathy and its human counterpart, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.

    As you can tell, the argument is a bit weak in what we debaters referred to as "causality." It's common knowledge, however, that the recent period of economic growth and prosperity in New York has coincided with a dramatic increase in the number of steakhouses. Old boys with new money are ordering filets and prime rib at dozens of manly meat purveyors ranging from the recently revived Delmonico's downtown to Michael Jordan's Grand Central steak salon to the newly opened 300-seat branch of the Palm (on W. 50th St.).

    At the extreme end of the steakhouse revival, Manhattan has experienced a mini-boom in Brazilian rodizio restaurants, which offer the ultimate carnivorous debauch. A typical meal at one of these places features 20 or more meats, rotisserie-grilled over charcoal, so that it self-bastes in its own fat until crisp and brown, and offered prix-fixe and all-you-can-eat. There's also a theatrical element, as waiters remove the skewers from the coals and carry (or, in the case of suckling pig, wheel) them from table to table, slicing off chunks from the charred flesh of whatever beast they're proffering with razor-sharp carving knives while diners grab the morsels using miniature metal tongs. A "chip" on the table tells the staff when to lay it on (flip the green side up) or lay off (red side up).

    For a long time, Manhattan's only rodizio was the middling Riodizio on Lafayette St. Over the past couple of years, however, that venerable tourist trap has been joined by two new rodizio practitioners: Churrascaria Plataforma and, even more recently, Rio de Janiero's. The two newcomers are located within blocks of each other in midtown, near Manhattan's (very) Little Brazil, and both offer palatial dining rooms, hot and cold buffets and a diverse selection of roasted meats at approximately the same prices. The main difference between the two is that Plataforma is excellent, and Rio de Janiero's is not.

    Rio de Janiero's gives ample warning signs of the disaster that looms ahead in the form of dinner. I've found that, as a general rule, the quality of the restaurant tends to be inversely proportional to the size of its glossy brochure, and Rio de Janiero's brochure is a piece of work: a glossy tri-fold in which all the pictures appear to be shot through a rose-hued lens in order to lend a semblance of ambiance to the totally antiseptic dining chamber, which looks like a college dining hall outfitted with high-backed wooden chairs. A second bad sign: the restaurant's citysearch page offers the following review excerpt, culled from a Florence Fabricant article:

    "Exuberant Brazilian Churrascaria, the restaurants known for all-you-can-eat extravaganzas of grilled food served by waiters parading skewers and carts of meat, are making their mark on the city's dining scene. The newest one, Rio de Janeiro, is typically big and bright." And that's where it ends.

    As if that wasn't enough to tip us off, there's a video loop running outside the restaurant showing diners enjoying themselves inside the restaurant. This is a clear sign of desperation on the part of the restaurant's owners.

    We entered to find the nearly empty, dingy-looking dining room made significantly less tolerable by a noisy lounge singer kicking an amped acoustic riff of (what else?) "The Girl from Ipanema." Our waiter opened by asking if we'd ever eaten rodizio before, and he seemed put off when we told him we've eaten at Plataforma, as if he knew right there that the jig was up.

    The meal moved from disappointment to disappointment: the salad bar, which at Plataforma offers a cornucopia of salads, seafood and vegetables swapped out frequently to ensure freshness, at Rio de Janiero's consists of a motley assortment such as one might encounter at a well-stocked Korean deli, and of approximately the same quality. The hot buffet is a complete disaster, featuring an unappealing selection of meat-in-sauce, oily fish and overcooked vegetables, very little of it identifiably Brazilian in origin.

    The meat we sampled arrived consistently hot off the grill (not a tremendous achievement, given how empty the restaurant was), but varied considerably in quality. The best of the offerings?a juicy, glazed pork loin, a deeply char-enriched skirt steak, a tender and flavorful cut of "baby beef" (whatever that may be)?rivaled that at Plataforma in quality, although it never equaled it. However, most of the cuts were either overcooked (lamb, quail, rabbit, chicken, sirloin), tough (beef kebab) and/or of undistinguished quality (pork rib, beef rib, duck). With the meat, upon request, the waiter provides a bowl of bland and tepid molho (a usually vibrant, fresh salsa).

    Desserts are trucked in from a local bakery, and are uniformly mediocre. Service is friendly, but has none of the flair evident at Plataforma, where the waiters enthuse over each cut of meat, offering it up as if it were a holy relic and taking it personally if you demur. At Rio de Janiero's, the waiters are as likely to shove the meat from the skewers as they are to slice it off, as if the meat didn't deserve better treatment (as, more often than not, it didn't). Even the caipirinhas, the national drink of Brazil, are third-rate, too syrupy and made with inferior cachaca (tastes like cheap rum).

    As I wrote in my earlier review of Plataforma, rodizio can be a great experience, leaving the diner punch-drunk on meat and caipirinhas and, despite the vast quantities of protein consumed over the course of an hour or two, not the slightest bit bloated. Alas, just the opposite is the case at Rio de Janiero's where you may well lose your appetite before the meat even starts making the rounds.

    The restaurant is open pre- and post-theater and, as you might expect, offers generous deals for tour groups and functions. Rodizio dinner is $27.99 prix-fixe, $18.99 at lunch, $24.99 after 10:30. Reservations are neither necessary nor recommended.