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South American cuisine is taking Miami by storm - or perhaps I should say sword. The latest in this exciting turn of culinary events is a Brazilian rodizio called the Rodeo Grill, a carnivore's paradise where all types of meats - from slabs of sirloin to chicken hearts - are grilled on long, Three Musketeers-style swords. The experience is one part fine dining, one part theater. A cadre of waiters continually parades from table to table presenting skewers loaded with meat, slicing off portions for patrons. According to the menu, this tradition is rooted in the grasslands of southern Brazil, where farmers used to grill meat over an open fire and spend hours savoring it. But legend has it that the technique comes from the conquistadors who speared and cleaned game meats with their swords, then cooked their bounty on their weapons - putting the Swiss army knife to shame.
When dining companion, a friend, and I visited the Rodeo, which opened in mid-March, it was jammed with well-dressed customers. Nobody wears cowboy boots and Levis here. The setting and the service are elegant - showy even - yet there's a warm, spirited ambiance. It's housed in the former digs of the Spanish restaurant Cervantes, and those who frequented that establishment will barely recognize the place. Gone are the hand-painted dishes and the ceiling beams inscribed with gilded quotes from Don Quixote. The antiguo look has been replaced by a modern, minimalist, white mega-room that looks as though it belongs in a high-rise in Brasilia.
A variety of chewy cheese rolls were at each place setting, and we nibbled on them as we looked over the simple menu and the comparatively complex wine list. About 40 vintages are offered from France, Italy, Chile, Germany, and California, with red and white house wines available for $3.50 per glass. I enjoyed a couple of oversize glasses of one of these last, a Chardonnay, while my dining companion elected to imbibe a beer.
The menu is a quick study. The rodizio is expensive at $24.95, but it includes a quantity of food that can only be described as hedonistic. For nonmeat-eaters, never-ending kabobs of fresh grilled fish (catch-of-the-day) are offered for $23.95, barbecued shrimp on a skewer is $25.95, and deep-fried shrimp and cheese goes for $23.95. Or, if you possess the self-discipline to deny yourself the passing show of temptations, you can choose to assemble your dinner at the plentiful salad bar for $7.95.
Before you could say touche, the three of us succumbed to the lure of rodizio. Waiters wielded swords impaled with great pork sausages, chicken drumsticks, breasts of turkey, boneless leg of lamb, lean short ribs, top sirloin slabs, pork loin chunks, and chicken hearts. Between courses, more waiters swirled around us brandishing plates of polenta, bowls of fluffy, short-grain rice, and hearty French fries. And then the procession of the grilled meats started all over again. We waved away some choices, and summoned more of others - the short ribs and sirloin, in particular, were very juicy. In fact, our party initially found the sirloin much too rare, so the waiter rushed back to the kitchen and got it another turn on the grill. When he returned with it only minutes later, the meat had been done to a perfect medium. A rather bland - but clearly homemade and thickly textured - tomato-based salsa was also on the table as an alternate method of jazzing up some of the less-juicy morsels, such as turkey.
Three things are in order before you head to the Rodeo Grill: a hefty appetite; a fat wallet, and time, for this is leisurely dining at its most relaxing.
2121 Ponce de Leon Blvd, Coral Gables; 447-6336. Hours: from 11:30 to 3:00 p.m. and from 6:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m. Monday through Saturday.