Grill Crazy

Last week I had one of those head colds no Comtrex can touch. My sinuses were so swollen that I felt like a river after the spring melt. I pulled abdominal muscles coughing, I couldn't speak or breathe, and, let's face it, you could have served me mud for dessert and I might have told you it was the best chocolate pudding I ever had.

But it wasn't the congestion that annoyed me so much as it was the advice: Everybody had an opinion about how I should treat myself, and it all seemed to involve consuming something. My mother recommended saltwater to open those nasal passages. My sister insisted on the ubiquitous chicken soup -- which she actually flew down from New York to make for me. (Well, that's a little misleading; she was coming to visit anyway.) My friend Mary wanted me to eat garlic. The woman who delivered my dinner from Oasis Cafe one night suggested raw onions with lime. And a waiter from Yesterday's in Fort Lauderdale wanted me to do shots of cognac with lemon rind.

That took care of the lily and citrus families. Then we got to the herbal remedies: A server from Hampton Cafe on Lincoln Road suggested St. Johnswort, while the woman from the catalogue company who took my phone order for Hanukkah presents recommended that I boil a bunch of unappetizing roots and leaves into icky teas.

Truth is, I don't totally mind the occasional stuffy nose. Sure, a cold interferes with the taste buds, but tasting isn't all there is to eating. Like the way that blindness is said to sharpen the sense of hearing, loss of taste increases the mouth's sensitivity to texture. I've always been impressed by how important texture is to the function of eating. I remember a study I read in a college psychology textbook: One group of rats was surgically manipulated into feeling the texture of food but not tasting it, while another group could taste the food but not feel it. The rats who could still discern textures survived; the rodents who couldn't lost interest in food and died. Think about it: Would you rather experience the cool creaminess of ice cream numbing your tongue and running down your overheated throat on a sweltering summer's day, or merely be aware of its flavor?

I also discovered that even when blocked sinuses prevent you from enjoying specific flavors, you can still identify four basic taste sensations: sweet, sour, salty, and spicy. That's some consolation to the sneezing sufferer, at least. And then there's my favorite remedy, the one I always resort to sooner or later: Feed a cold. Call it an old wives' tale, call it rationalization, but when the germs start multiplying in my body, so do the calories. I firmly believe a hearty meal cures all. And long after the ailment is on the run, I continue to indulge -- because hey, you don't want to leave yourself vulnerable to a repeat attack.

I was already on the mend when I took myself to the perfect spa for a sickie, Steak Masters. At this Brazilian steak house on Ponce de Leon Boulevard in Coral Gables, stuffing the stomach is really the only option: All-you-can-eat rodizio -- the showy Brazilian method of serving meat that features servers who tote around skewers laden with beef, pork, chicken, lamb, and sausages -- is the sole menu entry. At the beginning of the meal, each diner is given a card that's green on one side and red on the other. If you have your card turned to its green side, servers will pause at your plate and slice off some of what they're carrying so you can grab it with a pair of tongs. As long as that card reads green, your plate stays full. When you've had enough or want to take a rest, you simply flip the card over to the red side.

Given that Miami already has one notable rodizio restaurant, Porcio, Steak Masters has its work, uh, carved out for it. And at first the restaurant seems up to the challenge. The patterned wood floors gleam; the bilevel dining room, decorated with prints of cattle, nicely foreshadows the meal to come; and the adjoining lounge is dark and smoky. But the anchor of the restaurant is neither decor nor atmosphere; it's the 37-item salad bar beckoning from the back of the room, with unlimited visits included in the $24.50 price of the rodizio experience.

We filled our plates with everything from couscous with cucumbers to marinated mussels and octopus to shredded ham in mayonnaise. Julienned beets, giant green olives, pickled pearl onions, hearts of palm, whole artichoke hearts, and fresh balls of mozzarella were only a few of the garnishes. Though the prosciutto and other sliced meats, set out on platters along with shaved cheeses, seemed a little old at the edges, the lettuces -- bright, tightly curled radicchio, pale spears of endive, frilly green leaf -- were particularly crisp. Still another salad bar offering, vegetable-beef soup, was a savory broth rich and redolent with the essences of the meats being served around the room, accented with peas, carrots, and onions. An excellent segue to the skewers.  

The second act begins promisingly with skewered meats sliced over a metal plate, which catches drippings (and meat, should you be too slow with the tongs). In fact, waiters bring around a variety of steaks in such quick succession that distinguishing between the picanha (top sirloin), contra file (also translated as top sirloin), and chuleta (strip sirloin) becomes difficult after a while, a task we found even more trying because much of the meat was oversalted. Still, your best bet is to say yes to everything. Even more important, don't gauge the interior of a steak by its darkly roasted exterior. Several times we were convinced that the meat would be too well-done for our tastes, having judged solely by its browned, rotisseried exterior. Sometimes it was (as with the stringy strip sirloin).

But you have options here. Often, as the evening progresses, servers return sliced-into roasts to the kitchen for more fire -- the cooks continually brown the steaks and roasts (think gyro meat) to warm them and keep them looking fresh). Stop a skewer on its way back to the kitchen after making the rounds and you're more likely to score a medium-rare hunk of beef dripping with juice. Or simply request a pinker piece of beef and a server will fetch a different skewer for you. As for the salt -- well, that you've got to tolerate, unless the kitchen eases up. Drink plenty of water. Remove all rings.

Zesty pork sausages, supple boned chicken thighs, slightly drier turkey breast wrapped with bacon, and unpleasantly grainy filet mignon (also wrapped with bacon) were stacked on the skewers and pushed off rather than sliced. One of the best entrees was not meat on a stick at all, but fish on a cart: Grilled salmon in white wine sauce (included in the $18.50 price of the salad bar, should you choose to order just that and forgo the skewers) was wheeled over and served on a dinner plate, rather than having to be grabbed with the ever-ready tongs. Good logistics. The salmon was meaty and moist, a thick fillet doused with capers and mushrooms and a sauce golden with melted butter.

Rib roast, also dished up from a cart, was delicious, steamy and succulent despite being a little too well-done. Other "roasts" -- a mellow, medium-rare lamb and an arid smoked ham, white as pork -- were sliced from the swords.

After sampling every kind of meat, you'll be ready for an intermission. Take one with the side dishes, whisked onto the table as soon as the cards flash green and the carving knives glint silver. Several accompaniments provided good relief, particularly whole fried plantains; farofa (grated cassava stir-fried with bacon); white rice; black beans stewed with chunks of pork; and crisp onion rings. But fried yuca was hard and starchy, nearly raw in some places, and French fries were unappealing, cold and soggy.

Service was the evening's highest point. I haven't felt so cosseted in a long time. Dirty plates were removed and replaced with clean ones. Water was always topped off, drinks -- try an ultrastrong caipirinha, made with the Brazilian sugar-cane liquor called cachaca -- refreshed. One server's job was to stand guard at the salad bar, helping customers balance the inevitable overfilled plate. I'd return here just for the treatment.

I might have a harder time coming back for the desserts, mostly baked off the premises and wheeled over on yet another cart (a fourth cart is a mobile liqueur bar). Chocolate cake, though flavorful enough, was just this side of stale, a dense flan merely average. Fresh strawberries napped with whipped cream and fresh papaya halves filled with cream proved the simplest, most refreshing way to end a long, filling meal.

Only several months old, Steak Masters will doubtless improve as it matures; this is the sort of theater that plays best to a healthy crowd. Speaking of which, I felt my own health improving from the first bite. (If I were still sniffling, though, you can bet I'd be back to try the feijoada, that traditional beef-and-beans buffet brunch offered on Sunday instead of rodizio). Forget the flu shots. Steak Masters is a far more pleasurable remedy for whatever ails you.

Steak Masters
2121 Ponce de Leon Blvd, Coral Gables; 567-1718. Lunch and dinner daily from noon to midnight; Sunday until 6:00 p.m.  

Salad bar only (dinner)
Salad bar only (lunch)
Feijoada (Sunday only)

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