American culture has a long history of changing, chopping down and altering ethnic names because someone deems them too hard to pronounce or says they sound a shade too, you know, foreign. If you don't believe me, ask Jennifer Aniston (real name: Jennifer Anastassakis), Bernadette Peters (Bernadette Lazzaro) or Mel Brooks (Mel Kaminsky). Don't ask me how my own family's surname survived the name choppers at Ellis Island.
Restaurants haven't had it any easier than show-business types. If a traditional Brazilian churrascaria — a place where a variety of roasted meats is brought to the table on a steel rod by knife-wielding passadores — had opened in the Midwest in the 1960s, I'm convinced it would have been given an easy-to-remember "Americanized" name: Dinner on a Stick or Brazilian Beef Barn.
Old habits die hard. A friend of mine who lives in Overland Park insists that a new churrascaria is called "The Brazilian Steakhouse." The actual name of the four-month-old restaurant is Amor Fiery Steakhouse de Brazil, which is a mouthful, no matter how you slice it.
This particular restaurant concept isn't new to Kansas City. In the past year, Nick Silvio and Jeff Petersen opened their Northland version of a South American-style churrascaria, Em Chamas Brazilian Grill. But one can never have too much of a good thing, especially when you're talking about the ultimate meat-and-potatoes destination. Like Em Chamas, Amor combines a buffet of cold dishes and soups with an all-you-can-eat assortment of rotisserie-broiled meats, presented at the table by a swarthy male bearing a big knife and a steaming skewer.
If that description sounds vaguely pornographic, that's because there's most assuredly a sensual element to this dining experience, beginning with the basket of firm pao de queijo — chewy balls of cheese bread — and the plate of hot, sugar-dusted baked bananas. And this is long before the succulent meat on a stick comes into the picture. Toss in crisp tongues of endive, fat stalks of chilled asparagus and fleshy cylinders of hearts of palm, and you have the gastronomic equivalent of a Jenna Jameson film festival.
Amor is the creation of millionaire Al Copeland, the New Orleans restaurateur and founder of the Popeyes Chicken empire. Copeland owned the previous dining concept in this spot, the Cajun-inspired Copeland's of New Orleans, with former Kansas City Chiefs star Neil Smith. Smith and Copeland are still partners in this new venture. (There's also an Amor Fiery Steakhouse in Ohio.) I wasn't sorry to see Copeland's of New Orleans go. The food was mediocre, and the interior décor was shockingly tacky. That's why I was stunned when I first walked into the refurbished space, which is now a dark, elegant, sexy dining room. Walls have been painted clay-red or adorned with mirrors, and the carpet is thick and beautiful.
On the night I dined with my friends Bob and Sara, we were wowed by the formality of the place; it's one of the snazziest dining venues on 119th Street. And one of the priciest. Dinners include both the buffet and the seemingly never-ending array of grilled meats and cost about $44 a person, not including beverage, dessert or gratuity. Clearly, it's not the place to take a light or picky eater. I suggested that Bob and Sara skip lunch on the day we arranged to meet for dinner. I wanted them to get my money's worth.
One of the managers described the attractively presented buffet items to me as a "salad extravaganza." It's something extravagant, all right, straight out of the age of Louis XV, with an over-the-top floral display, silvery tureens filled with soup (an excellent, wildly rich lobster bisque on one of my visits), steamed white rice and feijoada (the black-bean concoction that's the national dish of Brazil). Bob said he preferred the cold-buffet selection at Em Chamas, though I saw a lot of similar dishes: pepper-dusted slices of raw tuna, hearts of palm, fresh fruit and the delicious salpicao, or cold chicken salad made with ribbons of red and green peppers. Bob and Sara heaped their plates with cold shrimp, slices of focaccia and milky mozzarella with fresh tomatoes. Before we had finished nibbling on all of this, the server brought out the traditional side dishes to accompany the meats: puffy wedges of fried sweet polenta and a bowl of garlic mashed potatoes.
When the salad dishes were whisked away, we were ordered to flip over the little cardboard circle at each place setting from the red side to the green. During the dinner shift, the skewer studs then march through the dining room with 15 different kinds of meat and, on that night, a big hunk of sticky grilled pineapple. I stopped counting at seven; I had to flip my little circle back to the red side after devouring slices of lusciously tender lamb, a nice piece of filet mignon, a sliver of top sirloin, a chunk of lemon-marinated chicken breast wrapped in bacon, a piece of filet wrapped in bacon, a plump link of spicy Brazilian pork sausage and some parmesan-dusted pork. By then, I was waving the white flag.
Bob tasted a few more offerings, including beef ribs, before he and Sara waved off the passadores. It seemed almost criminal, after all that food, even to consider dessert, but we shared a piece of cheesecake, and I took one guilty bite. Maybe two.
My second visit to the Amor Fiery Steakhouse was during the lunch hour, and I went solo. Missing at that hour were some of the grilled meats, the balls of cheese bread and the lobster bisque. Also, the "salad extravaganza" lacked seafood. But the service was just as formal and attentive. The waiter wore a red tuxedo shirt and a black jacket, and he fussed over all of his customers, including a table of young men in T-shirts, blue jeans and baseball caps.
The dining room wasn't particularly busy on either of my visits, though the waiter told me that the place really bustles on weekends. "It's kind of a special-occasion place," he said.
Well, at these meaty prices, it had better be something special. Whether you call this place the Brazilian Steakhouse, Dinner on a Stick or by its proper name, this is not the kind of restaurant one splurges on every day. I mean, that would be pornographic.