One of the most charming aspects of Portugal is the narrow, cobbled streets that lead into alleys that reveal a treasure of some sort. It could be a cobbler, a stationery shop, or a charming bistro where I discover an amazing espresso as I rest my weary feet.
With this in mind, imagine my delight at discovering Pampas Churrascaria amid the seemingly endless shops at Planet Hollywood's Miracle Mile Shopping Mall. Having just traversed a one-mile mall in the round, I am led down a charming alley of sorts, dotted with little bistros. Now I am looking for my respite.
The alley terminates with the captivating charm of Pampas Churrascaria. Affectionately known by management and guests as Pampas, the Brazilian-style steakhouse with its Portuguese heritage, immediately conjures sweet memories of holidays abroad through Pampas' welcoming facade.
The clean-lined storefront bespeaks of Brazil's European influence. With lofty walls leading to a sky-painted ceiling, the angular burgundy awning reaches out as if to extend a gracious hand to guests. There is an intimate quasi-patio out front. Undressed four-top tables are separated by large fan palms in oversized ollas to delineate the patio from the walkway. As people stroll by, their heels click on the deep ceramic wood floors.
My guest and I are 30 minutes early for our reservation and thirsty, so we decide to sit in the restaurant's adjacent lounge. The same rich flooring serves as our guide into the half-moon shaped bar and we sit in the comfortable leather padded bar stools. The bartender, Marco, promptly greets us. He resembles a young Antonio Banderas as he grins a bright white smile and places both a wine and cocktail menu before us. The beverages offered are solid and thematically pure selections.
I opt for Marco's recommended concoction, the acai-blackberry sour, while my guest asks Marco what wine he recommends. She prefaces her request by leaning in close to him and stating she has a wine palate. He immediately stands straight and happily recommends the Chilean Vermonte “Primus” cabernet blend, though the bar does have a global selection of wines.
As our drinks are prepared, we enjoy the soothing ambiance. The modest spirit shelf features premium alcohols on dust-free glass shelving. The walls are faux painted with a burnished Mediterranean patina of rich gold and there are shelves with potted cascading green vines reminiscent of a lush Brazilian forest. Mesh metal sconces dot the walls giving off seductive glows. There is a small area with leather high back bench seating opposed by smart mahogany chairs so that small parties can enjoy the bar area and nosh on tapas. The room appears larger by virtue of the open glass vanishing wall that allows an outdoor feel in spite of being inside.
My drink arrives in a rocks glass. It has an amber hue swirled by the purplish acai juice and served with a slice of lime. A crisp finish follows its sweetness and I realize this would be very easy to order repeatedly, so I stick with just one. After checking the legs on her red, my guest takes the first sip. She remarks that it is full-bodied with a robust nose, with hints of cherry and a somewhat tannic finish. She likes it.
We make quiet conversation with each other and our bartender. For some inexplicable reason, and no, not the alcohol, I find myself calling him Antonio. After calling Marco, “Antonio” the third time, he kindly reminds us his name. This soon becomes a running joke. Apparently, my faux pas doesn't bother him much, as he continues to be generous with his service. We reluctantly leave our new friend, but our reservation beckons us to the dining room.
We stroll to the turreted, stone covered vestibule, we are welcomed by two dark haired beauties with smiles as bright as the white sands of Ipanema. We are escorted to a table that sits inside of what resembles the interior of a Brazilian pyramid. Around us, the dining room is bordered by a darker tile walkway, which is separated from the lighter tiled dining area by mammoth, bleached out wooden timbers. In the dining area, there are tiered soffits leading upwards. This architectural detail makes the ceiling appear to continue to the heavens. I wonder if the indigenous people witnessed a similar vantage saw as they climbed the ancient seashell pyramids in Brazil thousands of years ago?
The seating is a mix of casual and formal with simple wood tables and chairs topped with elegant glasses and crisp, white linen napkins tucked inside. The tables are situated close to each other cafeteria style. Despite this departure from traditional American restaurants, there is ample room to walk about, which is not so much a feature of comfort, as it is a necessity of a churrascaria. Churrascarias, or steakhouses, feature table side service with roasted skewers of meat of all sorts—beef, sausage, seafood, lamb, poultry and sometimes even alligator—served directly from a sizzling skewer to plate. The dish is called churrasco, and the servers are known as passadores.
Brazilian culture is passionate and celebratory. Food is a social occasion as well as an event. Community is found by getting to know your neighbor and sharing. Pampas' ambiance spotlights that, and the astoundingly hospitable staff including the managers, Jack and Sean, greet us personally. I watch as they move from table to table, greeting everyone to the restaurant.
Pampas' dining room can easily seat 100 guests, but there are a couple other options. An intimate wine room can accommodate six to eight guests, and two banquet rooms can seat anywhere from small groups to several hundred people. These banquet rooms are often booked and we see a happy bridal party being escorted into one of them, replete with dance floor and DJ.
Our waitress welcomes us and presents us a large one-page menu and gives us a primer on the protocols of ordering. Basically, we eat as much as we like and use the two-sided chip on the table to indicate to the passadore whether we want to be served. The green side is displayed while we wish to continue our feast. Once we have surrendered, the red side is displayed.
Very simply there are three stars of the show—the Ultimate Surf and Turf Rodizio, the Meat Rodizio and the Vegetarian Rodizio. A la carte options are available for those who may feel overwhelmed by this unique style of dining. I'm inclined to believe that this rarely occurs given the global diversity of folks boisterously partaking of Pampas' churrascos.
I opt for the meat and my guest the seafood. Moments later, a dinner plate, a small hors de oeuvres plate, and silver tongs are brought to the table. We're encouraged to indulge in the salad bar.
We snake our way to the bar, enjoying the scenery as if on an Amazonian cruise. The salad bar is thoughtfully placed at the back of the dining room, serving as an oasis of brilliant hues of fresh vegetables, salads, and charcuteries. A large floral arrangement resembling a samba dancer’s feathered headdress sits atop the bar. I feel like Pedro Cabral discovering the bounty of Brazil in the form of a salad bar. Even though this is a steakhouse, a vegetarian would feel equally welcomed and leave equally satiated, especially when combined with the Vegetarian Rodizio of grilled squash, portabellas, and roasted Roma tomatoes.
I dollop a spoonful of each of item onto my plate, including hearts of palm in red pepper vinaigrette, black bean salad, seared then chilled Chinese broccoli drizzled with a balsamic reduction, braised kale, and a few of the charcuterie offerings of colony cheese and ham. I top it off with a ladle of a rich brown cup of feijoada, a hearty Brazilian stew featuring pork in all its forms. From ham to bacon and sausage, it is all given able-bodied support from black beans. Hints of garlic and coriander accent the bold flavor in this savory bowl.
When we return to the table, a chilled bottle of Panna water, and a basket of cassava greet us. Cassava is a root vegetable from the yucca family that grows well in the hot and humid climate of Brazil. It is an inexpensive and ubiquitous food staple for South America's largest country and these are prepared just like potato chips. We nibble on a few and while they're heftier than russets, theyare just as addicting. Like the commercial, we can’t eat just one, and we experiment with the two accompanying chimichurri sauces. The green one is a delicate mixture of garlic, olive oil, and thyme, with a mild acidic touch of balsamic vinegar. The red option is more robust, with the distinctive sparkle of a chipotle base that is offset with the sweetness of tamarind.
The passadore arrives with two appealing skewers of seafood. One has whole, pink prawns, and the other bacon wrapped scallops. The briney prawns are easy to remove from their shell, and are perfectly cooked. The scallops benefit from the smokey and salty bacon wrapping as well as the sear of the roasting ovens. Seafood and meats benefit from the churrasco cooking style, which is essentially a barbecue. In the old days, Brazilian cowboys known as gauchos, dug big pits and lined the bottom with hot rocks to cook whole pigs, lamb, and other animals all day in what amounted to an underground oven. Today, Pampas utilizes state-of-the art high temperature rotisserie ovens. They may be using 21st century technology, but the philosophy remains the same.
As we dig into our seafood, we are met with two more food offerings. I want to try everything and daintily use my tongs to capture a juicy piece of medium-rare sirloin wending its way down the skewer by the passadore’s artful slicing. The sirloin is succulent and rich with the smooth beef flavor associated with prime meat. Next is the bacon wrapped chicken, which is juicy and tastefully seasoned with what seems to be a secret recipe. As it turns out, the only seasonings used are salt and a drizzle of olive oil. Clearly, it is all about the technique and the flavors imparted by skill and heritage.
My guest and I relish and discuss our respective experiences when we're met by a beautiful woman pushing a glass cocktail cart. She stops and says good evening in Portuguese. She is Brazilian born and proud of that fact. In truth, much of the staff at Pampas is Brazilian.
She asks if we've tried the national drink of Brazil, the Caipirinha. When we admit that we haven’t, she insists we try it. She puts a few lime wedges in a tall glass and muddles it with a good amount of sugar. She proceeds to fill the glass with ice, pours the sugarcane spirit Ypioca Cachaca nearly to the brim, and shakes the cocktail. She then serves the drink with a slice of lime. The Caipirinha is simultaneously sweet and tart. Its chilly smoothness goes down easily. Apparently, Brazilians drink this year round while the children are served soda made from the guarana plant whose extracts are used in many American energy drinks. The soda known as Antarctica Guarana is effervescent and calls to mind a hybrid of cream soda and ginger ale. A delicious soft drink, Antarctia Guarana is neither overly sweet nor full of caffeine.
Our table is full with plates of savory fare, glasses in various states of repose, and our hostess is encouraging us to try the Sangria. We advise her that we have to drive, so she gives us samples of the ruby red juice topped with finely diced pineapple, mango, apples, strawberry and oranges. It is simply divine.
We cannot stop, and gleefully accept the latest skewers of lamb and pork sausage. My friend gets the medium rare lamb possessing classic mild gaminess brought out by the drizzle of balsamic reduction. I have the sausage. One of the distinctive characteristics of a fine sausage is the natural casing. The morsel before me is easily two good bites in size and welcomes me with a glistening amber color. As I’d hoped, my bite is resisted by the slightly crispy casing but upon breaching releases succulent juices of anise, pork and thyme.
Feeling like Olympic marathoners, we continue on to the garlic steak. Featuring a perfectly seared char on the outside and a glaze of a garlic oil emulsion, it sizzles on our plates as well as our palates. The purity of taste is remarkable, which speaks again to the techniques employed.
We are told the food servers aren't just bringing the skewers out, they are instrumental in the preparation of the cuisine because they're responsible for their own skewers. This ensures quality control is not just the responsibility of the sous chef, but with the entire chain of command at Pampas.
As we make yum-yum noises, we try the generous filet of skewered salmon. It's extraordinarily light, and expertly cooked.
Our bartender sends over a glass of Graffigna Reserve 2000 Cabernet Sauvignon. He instructs the waitress to make sure we know it is from “Antonio.” It is wonderful on its own, but when paired with the Parmesan dusted beef tenderloin becomes a sumptuous partner in bringing out the boldness of the beef.
We can eat no more and turn the table chip to red. We surrender but find the servers still monitoring our table to make sure we've had enough. We have, but not so much as to forego dessert.
Our plates are cleared and our water glasses refilled as we enjoy a brief recess before being offered a selection of four desserts. They are flan, chocolate mousse, strawberry cheesecake and tiramisu. The resident pastry chef makes them fresh daily. Before we can decide, the manager Jack comes back and instructs our server to give us all of the offerings, so that we can appreciate all of them.
A few moments later, we're presented with a selection of four generous desserts on a platter where each sweet sits on a swirl of chocolate sauce. Each is sublime in its own classic preparations. The ladyfingers are gently soaked with an alcohol infused espresso; the creamy flan has a smooth bead and caramel puddling like a moat; the whipped chocolate mousse is rich enough to satisfy any chocoholic, and finally a sour-cream garnished cheesecake that is dense with a classic graham cracker crust and topped with a vine ripened strawberry.
With South American music playing, the fanciful samba dancers in their beaded and feathered costumes, the romantic tones of Portuguese, and the effusive service mentality have temporarily confused our sense of where we are. This is no longer a mall in a Las Vegas resort. We are party guests at an estate in Rio de Janeiro where strangers become friends and toasts are made while children play underfoot. Best of all everyone is enjoying themselves with the extraordinarily prepared cuisine.
Pampas Churrascaria reflects the Brazilian passion for living and their resourcefulness at taking wholesome and fresh ingredients and transforming them through a centuries old cooking methods. But we just had something that was even more satisfying: an experience that will remind us of never being afraid to get lost, because in doing so, we were lucky enough to find a treasure like Pampas Churrascaria.