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Fresh Twists for Tired Tastes

Steinway & Sons 2004 Magazine

Fresh Twists for Tired Tastes. There's nothing inherently wrong with declaring "beef--it's what's for dinner," but even the most patriotic of Americans becomes restless at mealtime. Even the popular Mexican, Italian, and Chinese restaurants we turned to yesterday have become old hat today. Still, we continue to play the nightly negotiation game with our families and rotate these choices like a lazy Susan in the middle of our lives. "When you go out to a restaurant, it's usually because you want to celebrate or you're too tired to cook. Either way, you want a level of comfort, which is what you've had before," explains Andrew Dornenburg, the James Beard Award-winning co-author of The New American Chef. "The natural human response to unfamiliar food is that we fear it might be poisonous on a primitive level, or just plain unappealing on a practical level," chimes in his wife and co-author, Karen Page. Her research shows urban dwellers living on city blocks that resemble the United Nations are most adventurous; her 16-year-old niece living in a Philadelphia suburb is not. It's a pity, Page shakes her head; in her experience the ingredients to these newer cuisines aren't even that exotic. "The beauty of foreign cuisines: They can teach us how even the simplest ingredients can be enhanced into something special and memorable," she says. Note that in the American vernacular, that translates to "not spicy." "A lot of these dishes were peasant foods that started from the farm and worked their way up. They're not especially hot, which is what everyone assumes," Dornenburg assures. And with their wide inclusion of vegetables, many of these cultural experiences offer a more balanced nutritional breakdown that the typical U.S. fare. So, when you want to add more selections to your dinner wheel, substitute these tastes on your palate: Steakhouse--Brazilian Churrascaria Confess: Sometimes a steakhouse with a salad bar lining the wall hits the spot. You don't have to sacrifice that vice at a Brazilian churrascaria like Fogo de Chao located in Dallas, Houston, Chicago and Atlanta. Guests still can find iceberg lettuce here, but the kitchen staff also keeps the salad bars well stocked with different selections like hearts of palm, buffalo mozzarella, and tabbouleh. Just don't fill up at this stop--gaucho chefs slowly roast 15 different cuts of meat to a medium finish over an open fire and then bring them around to carve tableside at guests' requests. You'll be offered succulent servings of picanha (noble part of sirloin, a cut the Brazilian restaurant owners had to show butchers how to obtain, Selma Oliveira, Fogo de Chao's operations manager, confides), costela (beef ribs), alcatra (top sirloin), filet mignon, fraldinha (bottom sirloin), cordeiro (lamb), linguica (pork sausages), and chicken throughout your visit. And despite the fact that churrascarias like to call themselves barbecues to fit into the American lexicon, you must ask for barbeque sauce specifically. "We have very little requests, though, because the meat flavors are so fulfilling," Oliveira notes. "And when we do, there's always the comments from the next table--'Why would they do that to their meat?'" The juicy secret lies in preparation tricks like sprinkling rock salt onto the beefs just seconds before they hit the grills. Cuts like the picanha are seasoned with sea salt or garlic. The open fire pits, temperature, and even skewering technique play into the final outcome as well. This Brazilian concept only reached U.S. shores in 1996, but trade insiders like Nation's Restaurant News awarded it with their "hot concept" award in the spring of 2003--a virtual invitation for independent entrepreneurs to duplicate the idea in their own corners of the country. "It is in our nature to want variety as human beings, and God bless us, in America it's all right here," Dornenburg says.


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