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Carnaval Bar & Grill: Carnivorous Consumption 

A casual Brazilian churrascaria presents some weighty decisions.

If you've thumbed through an in-flight magazine even once in the past few years, you've probably come across promotions for the Brazilian churrascaria-style restaurants that reliably stake out ad space on their pages. These are the places where waiters duded up in the colorful garb of Brazilian cowboys rove the dining room with great hunks of meat speared on short swords to slice tableside onto your plate. You pay one price and eat all you want. That combination of entertainment dining and naked gluttony may seem like an American marketing contrivance, but it is nonetheless common in Brazil. So too, however, is the much more down-to-earth, self-service approach to carnivorous consumption displayed at Carnaval Bar & Grill. At this year-old, Mid-City Brazilian restaurant, you load up a plate from a buffet of salads, starches and ancillary meats and then belly up to the kitchen window, where a grill man tends a series of wood-handled skewers of meat, alternately rotating them in the open-faced rotisserie oven and yanking them out to serve slices and chunks directly onto your waiting plate. Then your entire take is put on a deli scale, weighed for all to see, and you are charged by the pound " $7.99 per pound in this case.

This Canal Street location was for many years Robin's Pancake House, which remained shuttered after the levee failures flooded the neighborhood. The renovation was extensive but hardly radical. The space has a comfortable, if spare, dining room with drop ceilings, brightly colored walls and ambience provided mainly by Brazilian soap operas and musical extravaganzas broadcast on a small TV in the corner. On Saturday nights, after food service has wrapped up for the day, the place turns into a nightclub with Brazilian music and dancing.

Even if the format here is exotic, the food itself is easily recognizable " barbecue beef, pork and chicken, lots of bacon-wrapped meats, trays of stewed chicken, and rice and beans offered a few different ways.

There is usually a choice of six to eight different meats, with mainstays of steak, brisket, cubes of fatty pork, chicken and Brazilian linguica, a spicy, herb-flecked pork sausage that has more in common with a robust Italian link than any other Latin-American sausage I've encountered.

All of the meat tends to be cooked to well done and is very salty, which is no accident. After the grill man serves a few slices from a big cut of beef, he can often be seen liberally sprinkling large salt crystals over it again before returning the meat to the fire.

One specialty is roasted chicken hearts. Dark, dense and rich, they are about the size of dates and are consumed by the dozen by people who like them. After trying a few, I decided to chalk them up as an acquired taste I have yet to acquire. A reliable favorite from the roaster is picanha, a rump steak curled into a rainbow shape on the skewer with a hump of fat glistening over the top. Since this chunk of roasting meat is large and thick, it provides your best chance at getting a slice with a bit of rare blush at the center.

It pays to watch how the more experienced patrons approach a meal here. They are not hard to pick out at Carnaval, since most are greeted warmly and carry on in Portuguese with the women running the front of the house. This mimicry is how I picked up the trick of using farofa, a roasted yucca flour, which sits inconspicuously in a large plastic container along with a collection of Kraft salad dressings by the kitchen window. After watching Brazilian guys shake this stuff over their assembled meals as copiously as grated Parmesan cheese on spaghetti, I tentatively followed suit and was pleasantly surprised by the result. The white, crumbly flour looks like sawdust and tastes like nothing much on its own, but it adds a nice texture and toasty flavor to the beans and rice in particular.

Besides the rice and beans, some of the best things on the buffet are Brazilian croquettes, made with cracked bulgur wheat, beef and parsley. They are moist, have a nutty flavor and strongly resemble Middle Eastern kibbeh. There is a cooler stocked with beer and soda, though the most interesting option is a can of Antarctic-brand guarana, a mellow, fruity and refreshing Brazilian soft drink.

The pay-by-weight approach seems to skirt some of the dilemmas with the often-derided yet immensely popular all-you-can-eat buffet standard. If you take more, you pay more, so you're not squeezing any greater value from the meal by going for seconds. But Carnaval's method also opens all kinds of doors for gamesmanship.

For instance, the big triangle cuts of watermelon at the very head of the buffet line would seem to add nice, bright, light-tasting balance to any plate. But when you can get an equal amount of beef short ribs or chicken chunks corseted with crispy bacon straight from the fire for exactly the same price, what chance does fruit stand? There are hard economic calculations to make. A pay-by-weight buffet is no place for sentimental food choices.

click to enlarge The buffet at Carnaval offers a selection of roasted meats and side dishes like salads and rice and beans. - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • The buffet at Carnaval offers a selection of roasted meats and side dishes like salads and rice and beans.
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