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Beefed Up 

You get grilled meat until you cry uncle at Espetus

Wednesday, May 26 2004
A few Tuesdays ago it was dueling restaurant desires, when the first place we'd thought of for dinner after an art opening in North Beach proved to be closed for a private party (booked by the very gallery we'd been to, because it was both the closest eatery and the best in the neighborhood. But that's another story). I suggested a new fish place; Robert suggested a newish Brazilian churrascaria.

"Why are you so obsessed with that fish place?" Robert said, overstating the case (we'd driven by it a few times to see if it had opened yet).

"Because its press release said it featured lobster, and my poor mother would be seriously lobster-deprived if it weren't for me," I replied. "You're the one who's obsessed!"

Robert had been suggesting the all-the-meat-you-can-eat place to me on a regular basis since it opened late last year, but I'd resisted until now because of unhappy experiences at a pricey churrascaria in Manhattan and a much more reasonable one in Burbank. Both featured a tired Sizzler-like salad bar and, yes, lots of meat, but not particularly distinguished meat. My reason for vetoing the place tonight, though, was that I had had a late lunch. "I need to know if I'm going to an all-you-can-eat place," I said, "so I can plan the day accordingly."

In any event, we dined at a Roman trattoria in the neighborhood. (But that's another story.) Within days, however, Robert's wife, Gail, called with a momentous announcement designed in part to elicit an evening out at Espetus, the Brazilian churrascaria: "Robert is on Atkins!" I knew this was coming. Our friend Peter lost 35 pounds in "slightly over three months," he said when I called him (which inspired me to quote Bette Davis in All About Eve: "I hate men!"). (Although he pointed out that he also got in three hours a day of exercise. "How do you do that?!" I gasped, knowing that he has a desk job. "I walk to work and back," he said. It wasn't exactly smug, though it inspired a bit of the same rage I felt when he called me to report, "I had duck confit and eggs scrambled in butter for breakfast" or "I had avocado wrapped in prosciutto for a snack.") In the face of this announcement, I crumbled. We were on for Espetus the next night.

Gail and I walk up windy, deserted Market Street to meet Robert, passing Zuni, one of our favorite places (dark this Monday night), and multiple encampments of the homeless. Espetus is set on one of those odd in-cuts off Market, and its glass-fronted facade looks warm and cheery. We enter a long, narrow room with a few tables set near the window, a row of tables opposite an impressive bar, and more seating in the back, by a U-shaped salad bar. There's so much multicolored granite and marble around that it looks like we're in a model kitchen sponsored by the Stone Foundation. (The décor is explained later when we see that the little dials on each table -- which can be flipped from "Sim por favor," obligingly translated as "Yes, please," in green, to "Não Obligado," or "No, thanks," in red -- also read "Imperial Marble and Granite, South San Francisco." Which we correctly guess is the other business of one of Espetus' owners. The effect is imperial indeed.)

There is no menu; it's one-size-fits-all. Atkins means no alcohol, so Robert, an oenophile, ignores the rather limited wine list; I go for the red sangria, with its float of diced oranges and apples, peels on. We're told to grab a plate and head for the salad bar -- "They want us to fill up on the cheap stuff," I mutter cynically, sotto voce -- then the meat boys will come to our table. "Tonight we have eight to 10 selections," they tell us.

The salad (and hot food, as it turns out) bar looks remarkably fresh and appetizing, even to my dubious eyes. As I've said before, my experience with buffets and all-you-can-eat places is that the advantage lies with the house, and that my eyes are bigger than my stomach (no matter what you think). There are well over a dozen platters on offer, and all look as though they were recently filled, not tired or messy from careless handling by the ravenous hordes. Just as I'm thinking this, I see Robert frantically unloading cucumber slices from his plate: "The vinegar is sweet!" he says, in what I think is a semihysterical Atkins overreaction. Covered chrome containers are full of rice, soupy black beans, pinto beans, the toasted flour called farofa that Brazilians sprinkle on their rice-and-beans, and two hot dishes: chicken bits in a vaguely unpleasant cream sauce and more-appealing chunks of salmon in a tomato sauce full of sliced onions, peppers, and whole green olives (which would have been optimistically called "Spanish-style" in my grammar-school cafeteria). Neither hot dish is compelling.

The meat begins arriving much sooner than I expect (so much for my cynicism). Men dressed in a theatrical style -- black shirts, gaucho pants, bright red scarves cinched with bolo ties -- come to the table, each brandishing a long skewer (espetus means "skewer" in Portuguese) stabbing appetizing, massive hunks of meat (or, in the case of the daintier mouthfuls such as chicken hearts and pork sausages, carefully, even precisely, lined-up chunks of meat). They place the point of the dagger on a cute little ceramic plate designed with a well to catch the juices (I restrain myself from begging for a piece of bread to dip in the drippings, a favorite treat of mine at home) and slice off a bit of the meat, which we then grab with tongs. The slices at first appear dollhouse-size, but then we remember that there is more, much more, to come. Robert indicates that he wants more of the plump chicken hearts, and our server cheerfully obliges (as he would with any of the choices), sliding off the skewer six of the juicy morsels for him, instead of the three I receive.

The chicken hearts turn up right after our first offering, flavorful beef tenderloin. (So flavorful, in fact, that it is Robert's favorite of the evening; that is, until the lamb arrives, heavily flavored with needles of rosemary.) (When I inquire later if the place ever serves any other organ meats -- "Sweetbreads? Liver? Kidneys?" -- I'm told, "No. Sometimes we have shrimp," something of a non sequitur.) Then come neatly trimmed chicken thighs with good, crusty skin; after that, top sirloin. (All the beef is cooked with pleasantly pink insides; well-done-ophiles get edges.) Next up, a surprising arrival: whole roasted pineapples, a splendid, sweet, and acidic counterpart to the meat. I love it. (No pineapple for Robert.) Another nice acidic counterpart is the liquid, spicy, chopped-peppers-and-vinegar relish.

Before I leave for my second assault on the salad bar, I do a Seven Dwarfs kind of memory test, scribbling down all I can recall from my first trip (to be fair, I am somewhat assisted by a few remnants on my plate): coleslaw (rather tangy and original), artichoke hearts, hearts of palm, hard-boiled eggs (cut in half and slicked with a bit of Russian dressing), potato salad (creamy, house-made, and good), rosy pickled baby turnips, pickled beets, corn salad, green salad, eggplant salad, sliced red and yellow tomatoes with mozzarella (rubbery mozzarella, surprisingly ripe tomatoes), quinoa salad. When I get to the bar, I find that the new platter of tomatoes is mozzarella-free and that the only items I forgot were the broccoli florets, cucumbers, chickpeas, tabbouleh salad, and a delightful fruit salad in sour cream, like ambrosia without the coconut.

I return to find that a plate with three crunchy, perfectly fried bananas, warm and creamy inside, has mysteriously appeared. Again, I love it. Gail and I conscientiously divide Robert's portion. I fully intend to request another plate, but I forget in the onslaught of chunks of pork loin dusted with Parmesan (overcooked), sirloin steak (with edges of translucent, yummy fat), chunks of top sirloin impregnated with lots of minced fresh garlic, lamb with rosemary, fat pork sausages ("Made right here!" our server beams), and pork loin (more knowingly cooked than the Parmesan version). Toward the end of the meat deluge we're offered skewered grilled vegetables: zucchini, onion, peppers. By this time I am full up to my eyeballs and wish they'd shown up earlier.

Even extra-portions Robert is slowing down. We turn the dial from green to red until the beef tenderloin comes around again, for a final hurrah. Then we order dessert, more out of curiosity than desire: a crema Catalana that's much less rich than others we've had, more like an anemic crème brûlée; and a dauntingly big square of Tres Leches Cake, a vanilla-scented yellow cake soaked in the three milks (evaporated, sweetened condensed, and whole) of its name, and covered with a white frosting pleasantly crunchy with undissolved sugar crystals (which Gail, a great baker, thinks is the result of a carelessly made seven-minute frosting, but I don't care; I like it). And the hit -- a huge goblet full of papaya cream, an airy, light pudding, with a ball of tart cassis sorbet plopped in its middle and a touch of cassis liqueur sprinkled about.

I would happily tuck into that pudding again, but I'm unsure of the repetitive attractions of Espetus, despite the Atkins appeal. (And there was quite a lot that Robert had to decline, poor thing.) Once you've had the meat experience, there are no surprises. It reminds me of the fate of another South American spot in San Francisco that specialized in Argentine parillada (a brazier piled high with grilled meats) and nothing but (unlike my favorite, Villa del Sol in South San Francisco, whose vast menu includes excellent pastas). "Everyone wanted to go there," my father told me, "once."

About The Author

Meredith Brody

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