A great new place to meat
At na Brasa, which just opened in May at 680 N. Easton Rd., across the road from the Willow Grove Naval Air Station (Route 611), a mile and a half off the Pennsylvania Turnpike, about 15 to 20 minutes from Chestnut Hill, you might say there’s always a thriller on the griller.
na Brasa, which means “on amber” in Portuguese (in other words, the burned wood that is still glowing and is used to grill), is a churrascaria, or authentic Brazilian steakhouse. Believe me, no matter how many steakhouses you may have been to, they are nothing like naBrasa, the only restaurant of its kind in the suburbs. (Two Brazilian steakhouses, Fogo de Chao and Chima, are in center city, but their prices are much higher than at naBrasa.)
First of all, there is no menu. A meal is a Bacchanalian parade of all-you-can-eat salads and side dishes, as well as 14 different cuts of meat plus swordfish and salmon served on skewers in theatrical style by an army of servers dressed as gauchos, the cowboys of Argentina and southern Brazil. They are fitted with the traditional billowing black pants, red neckerchiefs, wide leather belts and puffy shirts. Like bees, they buzz around the dining room, stopping at each table that is ready for main course service.
There is a card next to each plate with a “Yes” side and a “No” side. When you want meat service, you simply turn the “Yes” side face up; suddenly the gauchos race to your table as if they’re riding in the Kentucky Derby and begin carving different cuts of pork, filet mignon, beef ribs, chicken, lamb, sirloin and more. And on each skewer, the gauchos can cut pieces that are rare, medium or well done, whichever you prefer. They are all slow-roasted over an open fire in mammoth quantities and rushed out to diners with military precision.
And no matter how much you eat, dinner is a fixed price of $29.95 per person on weekdays (and $34.95 on weekends), which is a bargain since center city traditional steakhouses charge more than that for just one filet mignon entree. You can also have only the salad buffet for $19.95. For rich folks, as we all know, money talks; for the rest of us it just nags, but at these prices it won’t nag too much.
The unlimited salad bar can easily be a meal in itself. There are more than 25 items, including cheeses, soups, breads, olives, fresh greens, hearts of palm, Italian salami, marinated mushrooms and much more. And if that is not enough, four side dishes — polenta (corn meal), mashed potatoes, fried bananas and warm cheese bread — are also brought out to each table.
Of the meat dishes we tried, our favorites were the filet mignon, pork ribs and chicken wrapped in bacon, all bursting with flavor. Needless to say, you already feel like a pregnant hippo after the salad bar and side dishes, before the meat deliveries even begin.
There is an extensive list of wines and specialty cocktails, including more than 100 wines from around the world by the bottle — with a focus on Portuguese and Spanish — and 18 by the glass. The main dining room, with its tray-molded ceiling, hardwood floors, gorgeous mahogany beams and elegant décor, combined with a private room and a second dining room, provide seating for about 220. A bottle of Cartuxa Cabernet ($44.95), recommended by director of operations, Rui Lucas, was medium-bodied but full of luscious flavor and a perfect match for most of the meats. A French martini and Espresso martini were expertly made and reasonably priced at $8.50 each. An even better deal is the $6 Caipirinha, the national cocktail of Portugal, made at tableside by a lovely young lady from Brazil, Amanda Chinageia.
Most desserts are made in-house. We thoroughly enjoyed the Ripenos, a fruit sorbet (we had lemon) in a natural fruit shell ($6) and a Dolce de leite semifreddo, which is a creamy delight with lots of caramel and hazelnuts, topped with caramel sauce ($6).
By a complete coincidence, we happened to be seated next to a table with people we recognized. Toto Schiavone and Claire DiLullo, owners of Moonstruck in Fox Chase, which has been turning out great Italian food for three decades, had brought Toto’s son, Fabrizio, to na Brasa, to celebrate his 32th birthday. After the dinner, Toto commented, “I am very impressed at what they are doing here, especially at this price. You certainly get your money’s worth.”
According to John DeMers, editor and publisher of Texas Foodlover in Houston, Brazilian steakhouses like na Brasa “take a part of the world that most Americans don’t know much about — the gaucho culture of Brazil and Argentina — and serve it up in a way that is both exotic and familiar at the same time.” They have also succeeded in combining dining with entertainment, a marriage that is a lot easier to promise than to produce
Owners Daniel DaCosta of Willow Grove and Celso Leite of Montgomeryville teamed with Rui Lucas of Philadelphia to create not only na Brasa but also the Iron Abbey Gastro Pub right next door, which has a European/English/Belgium décor. For na Brasa, the team tapped the talent of head chef Abilio Medeiros, who grew up in the south of Brazil where the serving style employed at na Brasa originated more than 500 years ago, according to Lucas. Medeiros has spent his career in the Brazilian steakhouse industry and opened ventures in Portugal and London before moving to the states.
Iron Abbey, with its castle-like feel and extensive fusion-style menu, is open from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and boasts more than 200 bottled beers, ales, saisons, pilsners, porters and stouts, as well as barley wines and specialty drinks.
The gastro pub, a British term for a pub that specializes in high-quality food, is a “full-on” soccer bar with eight TV screens to simultaneously show live English, Scottish, Italian, Portuguese and Spanish matches, plus Philadelphia sports. When the place is crowded, it also has a thunderous din that would make an avalanche seem quiet. I did, however, overhear one woman say to a man she apparently just met, “I only wanted a small wedding, so we hired a three-foot-tall minister.” (To make a memorable impression, she should have said, “As part of Obama’s stimulus package, corporate executives are now only allowed to play miniature golf.”)
The owners are planning to add outdoor dining by the end of the summer that would accommodate 32 more for Iron Abbey, which seats 100 now, and 60 more for na Brasa. On the Thursday night we were there in early July, na Brasa served about 200 dinners. We were told that reservations were highly recommended on weekends and that on a Saturday night na Brasa might serve from 400 to 500 dinners. Na Brasa is open every night of the week for dinner, and Iron Abbey is open every day for both lunch and dinner.While it would probably cost you about $15 to $20 to park at either downtown Brazilian steakhouse, na Brasa has a huge, free parking lot. For more information, call 215-956-0600 (na Brasa) or 215-956-9600 (Iron Abbey), or visit www.nabrasa.com or www.ironabbey.com.