By now, most of us have been initiated into the carnivorous merry-go-round of the Brazilian steakhouse, or churrascaria – whet your appetite at an enormous salad bar, then take your pick of meaty cuts served by puffy-pants-wearing gauchos brandishing blades dressed with succulent beef, chicken and pork. It’s a belly-busting (and wallet-draining) affair, to be sure, but if you can’t taste the quality in the meats, especially the cuts of beef, the $37.95 you drop may seem like a big waste when it’s all said and done.
Nelore, a polished restaurant in the space once occupied by Allegria Wine Bar, bridges the gap between quality and quantity, but doesn’t quite reach the beefy heights attained by high-end steakhouses. Fact is, you’re not going to find Capital Grille or Del Frisco’s quality meat at an all-you-can-eat churrascaria, so lowering expectations is an inevitable part of the rodizio experience.
The area housing the “salad bar” is enormous, and many of the items offered (40, to be exact) were superbly fresh – crisp hearts of palm and asparagus, beet orbs, artichoke hearts and salmon to name a few. I’ve known people who’ve gone to Nelore (named after the Nelore cattle breed) just for the salad bar, which is a steal for $9.95 at lunchtime ($17.95 for dinner). Cauldrons of black beans, rice, yuca, mashed potatoes and, on the night I visited, tomato basil bisque were also offered. Cheese bread and fried yuca were then presented seconds before the first round of hit-and-miss meats made their way to our table. Things started off nicely with the salty sirloin and picanha (rump roast), but subsequent cuts of flank, filet mignon (which also comes wrapped in bacon) and the rib-eye all tasted much the same. The seasonings were Spartan – just a little sea salt –resulting in a sometimes lackluster flavor. I headed to the salad bar and poured myself a bowl of chimichurri as a dip for the meats, and that helped to liven the flavors. The filet and rib-eye, it should be noted, were way overcooked, though the friendly, accommodating gauchos are more than willing to get you cuts cooked to your liking. I did like the tender garlic beef and the fatty, flavorful ribs (both beef and pork are offered); the sausages had a proper kick. Chicken drumsticks came crisp and smoky, but were just OK. Gamy and off-putting, the lamb chops were a big disappointment – one bite was more than enough. We never did get to see the parmesan pork or the leg of lamb, but we were pretty well finished eating anyway.
Park Avenue’s upscale environs likely played a role in the omission of offal from the menu – no blood sausage, chicken hearts, sweetbreads, kidneys or intestines. The interior, however, plays right into the hands of the sophisticated clientele the restaurant hopes to attract. It’s a beautiful space that made me think of a contemporary lodge, with wrought-iron chandeliers and wood chair rails making lovely accents. Just as lovely was the pitcher of sangria teeming with fruit, but house-made desserts failed to impress us. Papaya cream ($7.50), while refreshing, was a bland ending, even with a splash of crème de cassis (black currant liqueur). The gooey chocolate truffle known as brigadeiro ($6.50) fared better, with condensed milk and butter adding a caramel-like consistency.
And consistency is key. Without it, Nelore’s corral is less than golden.