Brasa: Niagara Falls Brazilian Steakhouse Has Looks, No Frills

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Brasa Brazilian Steakhouse
6361 Fallsview Blvd. Niagara Falls, ON L2G 3V9, Canada
Web: Brasa Brazilian Steakhouse
Phone: 905.354.7887
Rating:    [learn more]
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"Virtually every description on the menu was at least a little off: the supposedly crispy bacon-wrapped chicken breast was as soggy as a weak diner breakfast, while the purportedly tender beef short ribs were overcooked and crunchy."

This week, we discovered a truism: if you're saving room for dessert at a Brazilian steakhouse, you're in the wrong place. All but perfected by the growing international chain Fogo de Chao, the seemingly simple "stuff them with beef" formula has helped Brazil's all-you-can-eat churrascarias win loyal American fans over the past decade, using the classical steakhouse $40-50 per person price point to instead assemble massive salad bars and cuts of meat that can boggle the mind; unlimited filet mignon, lamb chops, and sausages are just the start. With the opening of Brasa Brazilian Steakhouse in Niagara Falls, a new competitor for the earlier CopaCabana, Western New Yorkers now have have two options just across the Canadian border - as accessible to hard-core steak lovers as Ming Teh is for serious fans of Chinese. Which one is better? We'll answer that question definitively in the review below, though your personal needs might lead you to prefer the one with less impressive food on the basis of its larger, nicer dining room.

The Big Picture. Apart from some issues with the Hilton Fallsview hotel it's located within - there was no heating in the entry on our winter visit - Brasa makes a very positive first impression; it was obviously designed by someone familiar with the decor of upscale churrascarias. From the closed, glass-encased wine room next to the salad bar to a wonderful, fancy date-caliber dining room, this is the sort of place that we truly miss having in Western New York - tile and wooden floors, rich yellow, red, and brown tones, and a generally sharp-looking crowd make it nearly the visual rival of a sophisticated Fogo de Chao location. Moreover, the seating capacity is two or three times that of the nearby CopaCabana, and the environment isn't as cramped or as raucous.

For $46 Canadian ($43 U.S.) per person, you get access to upwards of 50 items on an attractive vegetable and fish buffet, plus 12 types of meat served by sword-wielding Brazilian gauchos, essentially gentleman cowboys. Each patron receives a set of metal tongs and a circular card that flips between "feed me" green and "stop for now" red colors, letting the gauchos know when to stop at or skip by your table. Multiple types of steak, pork, chicken, and lamb are sliced directly off the sword-shaped skewers into your waiting tongs, and you can ask for as much as you want, as many times as you want. There's no shortage of gauchos or meat; they hit your table soon after you arrive and keep coming every few minutes until you're done.

Great-Looking Food. Visually, most of the food is spot-on: predictable churrascaria buffet favorites such as grilled peppers, asparagus, and fresh mozzarella balls pop with bright tones from the surprisingly shadowy salad bar, while huge lengths of cooked and smoked salmon, bins of rolls, and pre-fabbed seafood, fruit, and pure veggie salads are all dressed to kill. Similarly, when a gaucho occasionally appears to offer a big slice of cinnamon-glazed pineapple, it may well be so eye-catching that you'll forget you're supposed to be loading up on the more expensive meat.

Unimpressive Meats. Most of the churrascarias we've visited have at least one special item - sometimes three - that psychologically justifies their steep set asking prices: we're thinking primarily of filet mignon, semi-exotic game meats, and/or the deluxe top sirloin cut called picanha. Brasa doesn't offer any of these; in fact, it oddly revels in so-so cuts, offering grizzly bottom sirloin, rump, and ribeye, plus some of the least impressive-tasting top sirloin and chicken we've had at any churrascaria, anywhere. Virtually every description on the menu was at least a little off: the supposedly crispy bacon-wrapped chicken breast was as soggy as a weak diner breakfast, while the purportedly tender beef short ribs were overcooked and crunchy. Lamb chops shown on Brasa's web site were nowhere to be found on the menu or the skewers; gamey lamb leg is served instead. Pork Side Ribs, we discovered, were out of stock on our visit, and though the pork sausages were a fine substitute, they didn't offer anything special in flavor or prep. Without exception, all of the meat was merely fair, though we noticed significant inconsistencies in flavor, salting, and doneness from skewer to skewer; the gauchos only rarely offered doneness options, and even then, "medium rare" meat was closer to medium well.

Other Items Disappointed, Too. Great churrascarias reduce steak consumption brilliantly, offering flavorful, filling side dishes that lead patrons to voluntarily diversify their meals. Brasa brings out plates with tiny lumps of cornbread and polenta that were well below par by the standards of other places we've visited, and classical stuffer items we expected or hoped to find - cheese-filled rolls, sun-dried tomatoes, or thick stalks of asparagus - were either entirely absent or unimpressive in size and flavor. We both agreed that the salad bar had the best food at Brasa, which says something for the mediocrity of the meats, but there was no highlight. It was as if the menu was assembled with too much attention to the bottom line and too little to offering a little sparkle.

A Decent Caipirinha. We've had great and awful versions of this famous Brazilian drink, distinctions owed primarily to differences in the cachaca, a sugar cane liquor that can vary a lot in quality. On the bright side, Brasa's version didn't taste like gasoline - that's happened before - but it wasn't very powerful, and the $10 glass seemed to be 60% or 70% ice and lime slices. Other fruit flavors were available to replace the limes; perhaps if we were on someone else's dime, we'd have been more inclined to sample them.

Spotty Service. On a positive note, the sometimes indifferent or surly service of CopaCapana was nowhere to be found at Brasa - we've had fine meals there, but nothing with the utter class and charm of a Fogo or similar competitor. But Brasa had its own issues. We were initially pleased with our server, who was friendly but not attentive enough, failing to appear mid-meal to clear dirty plates, then disappearing entirely after delivering our check. Twenty minutes later, when we'd spotted and unsuccessfully tried to wave her down three times to pay the bill, she lost half her tip - a step we literally have not taken in the last two years, to our recollection, and certainly not in a place where the check was guaranteed to top $50 per person.

Room For Dessert. With only rare exceptions, Brazilian steakhouses switch to an a la carte format for desserts, which are frankly unnecessary at most places: by the time you're done eating tons of great meat and veggies, the idea of a big slice of chocolate cake or even a traditional passionfruit mousse just seems excessive. At Brasa, we couldn't bring ourselves to eat more of the bland lamb, so-so beef, or good but particularly unhealthy pork sausages, so we actually left plenty of room for dessert. After seeing the dessert menu, one of us abstained based on the lack of an appealing option - flan, sorbet, more grilled pineapple, a hazelnut tort, and mini-plates of truffles, cookies, and the like were all offered for $9 per plate - but the other was too curious to pass up the opportunity.

We went with the traditional Tres Leche milk cake, which arrived looking gorgeous, its golden body freckled with toasted coconut and topped with a sugary frosting; a chocolate grid rose to the sky, while small pieces of blackberry, raspberry, strawberry, and blueberry were scattered artistically in a caramel puddle at its base. The sight of something so well-composed was welcome after the array of meats, which for all their quantity were anything but picturesque. A bite or so in, however, it was obvious that the Tres Leche's looks were its strongest suit: the cake arrived quickly, with a chilly core that reflected its pre-assembly and storage in a refrigerator, and the dessert was heavily sugared to mask the absence of depth - even the caramel on the plate was more liquid than mass. But the cake wasn't bad; despite the refrigeration, it was still fairly moist, and the slight taste of rum helped add a little to the otherwise plain pound cake-like dessert.

Overall, our feelings on Brasa were decidedly mixed: on one hand, we loved the venue, felt okay about the price point, and welcomed competition for CopaCabana, which is good enough for the occasional visit but not spectacular. On the other hand, there was no doubt in our minds that Brasa's food consistently fell short of its nearby rival, and that its service disintegrated in the fourth quarter of an expensive meal. Those unfamiliar with the churrascaria concept will be wowed by Brasa's very existence, and its dining room makes for a better upscale date than at CopaCabana, reasons that it may well continue to thrive in Niagara Falls. But unless something changes in the kitchen, serious steak fans will see through the veneer pretty quickly. At a great churrascaria, there's never a question that your dollars have bought a better overall meal than can be had at a typical American, Canadian, or European steakhouse for the same price; Brasa has good looks on its side, but falls below standards of excellence in all of the other regards we consider important.

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Comments (1)

Dorothy :

This place is overpriced and the food was terrible. The salad bar was well stocked but some of the food was not labled, therefore we thought the ostrich eggs were mozzeralla balls and the squid we thought was tortillini. The bottle of wine that the waitress recommeded because it was less expensive than by the glass was $80 for Kendall Jackson Chardonnay. There we six of us girls there to enjoy the weekend and dinner out. The meat was horrible! We expected to pay $50 for the meal but not $80 for a bottle of wine, what a rip off!! We complained, but the manager didn't do a thing. Never will return.

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