Photos by Mark Thompson
The gaucho is out there on his own. The dining room might be packed, the bar too, and the secret-garden courtyard. It might be an absolutely heaving, hope-you’ve-got-a-reservation Friday night at Chima, but the gaucho is still out there, in the middle of the restaurant, on his own.
And maybe that level of rugged individualism is appropriate. The name “gaucho” derives from the Brazilian cowboys who created this cuisine of deceptively simple meat cooked over an open grill. Chima’s gauchos are, in Brazilian rodizio style, chefs and waiters, roaming the dining room with the meats they cook, checking in on tables, seeing who might need them to slice off another piece.
“It’s a ballet,” says Eric Leseur, Chima’s general manager. “I call it a ballet every night. The gauchos have to dance through the room with their knives.”
And in Fort Lauderdale, the ballet business is good. Chima opened in 2003; in 15 years, it’s become a high-end mainstay in a swiftly changing local restaurant scene. In that time, the concept of the roving chef-waiter Brazilian steakhouse has become more familiar to Americans, thanks in part to the growth of the Fogo de Chao chain and other restaurants. But as the local high-end market and the national Brazilian steakhouse market have both grown more crowded, Chima has found itself building an increasingly loyal clientele.
Consistency, Leseur says, is key with customers who think “’It’s there, we know it’s there, we can rely on it.’ That’s the mark of excellence in the minds of a lot of people.”
From the outside, the restaurant’s appearance is deceptive. Sitting just west of the Intracoastal in the residential section of Las Olas, Chima’s neighbors include several businesses of the non-restaurant variety and a gas station. The squat, one-story space is arranged in a “u,” with the open end facing Las Olas. You walk into a courtyard, little of which reveals itself from the street.
And then you’re in something wholly unexpected. “When you come to Chima, it’s a bit of a different world,” Leseur says. “It’s discovering that nook.”
The outdoor bar-patio area mixes seating and jungly foliage, the latter overseen by a massive, 150-year-old banyan, and all of it set to a Brazilian jazz soundtrack. To the right sits the bar, a round room appointed with retro-chic furniture and a sort of Mad Men, let-me-play-the-latest-bossa-nova-on-my-hi-fi-stereo vibe. Next to it sits the main dining room. That’s where the show takes place.
Each gaucho, Leseur explains, has also prepared the meat he’s offering. They know the product and can answer questions about it with authority. The meat itself can be anything from sirloins and ribeyes to pork ribs and New Zealand leg of lamb. Sausage? Filet mignon wrapped in bacon? No problem. They can even get you some salmon.
Actually, that last one leads to an important point. For those unfamiliar with the place, Leseur also wants it made clear that meat isn’t the only thing on offer. If a patron wants something slightly different, the gaucho can go prepare it. And for the vegetarian – or something who’s just not in the mood to double down on meat – the salad bar is a restaurant in itself. Really, you could make a strong case that “salad bar” isn’t really a fully encompassing term for something that also offers selections of imported cheese, Gorgonzola mousse, shrimp-and-calamari seafood salad and more. Saving room for dessert – passion fruit mousse with warm chocolate sauce, or perhaps tiramisu or cheesecake – is also recommended.
But the meat’s the main act. And the showmen who bring it to the table are the main actors.
“It’s like a clock,” Leseur says of the gauchos.
“Every one of the chefs has his own function, but together they all prepare the meat.
“It looks simple from the outside but from the inside … oh my God.”
The Dish: Banoffee
Chima’s not all about the meat. Their salad bar, drinks list and dessert menu are also amazing. On that last one, here’s proof.
• 2 ripe bananas
• 1 oz caramel
• 1 oz fresh whipped cream
• Fresh whipped cream
• 1 quart heavy cream
• 1 cup sugar
• 3 cups graham crackers with butter
• 2 tbsp melted butter
First, blend the whipped cream and sugar to a firm consistency. Pour into a pastry bag and place in the refrigerator. Bake the graham crackers, crumbled, with butter for five minutes at 375°F; reserve until cool. Pour one can of cooked, condensed milk in pastry bag. Cut the bananas into slices. In a martini glass, arrange on the bottom one tbsp. of graham crackers mixture, then the caramel. Then place four banana slices in horizontally. Put whipped cream on top. Garnish with two slices of banana and sprinkle some graham cracker crumbs on top.