Rio Brazilian Steakhouse
267 Torbay Road
Ph. (709) 237- 8618
In lieu of actually flying down to Rio, we took a spin out to Torbay Road to visit Rio Brazilian Steakhouse.
Rio is a churrascaria (barbecue) Brazilian restaurant. Some people call them gaucho restaurants. Gaucho is another word for cowboy.
The gaucho look would be less Jack Twist in “Brokeback Mountain” and more the panchoed stranger in “A Fistful of Dollars.” Barbecue is a part of gaucho culture in the Pampas of southern Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay.
To call Rio a steakhouse in these parts gives the wrong impression. It certainly does offer steak (slices for dinner at least) but not in the way you’d have a steak at The Keg. (More on that later.)
On our first visit, a friendly young woman showed us to a comfortable round corner booth at the back of the restaurant. It was lunchtime. After receiving quite quaffable portions of the house red and white wines (Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc) from her, I asked if she could tell me the story of how the restaurant was born.
She said the eatery’s previous incarnation, under a different owner, was a pizza restaurant (Pizza Delight). When that business went to restaurant heaven, a restaurateur named Yehan (first name) and partners established Rio Brazilian Steakhouse at 267 Torbay Rd. More power to them, I say.
The executive chef at Rio is the affable Mark Walsh, native of Bellevue, Trinity Bay. Unlike me, Walsh has formidable sea legs which enabled him to spend many past years doing marine cooking. He worked mostly on oil rig supply vessels. No doubt he’s happy to be trading the 16-hour work days for the 12-hour work days at Rio.
Rio has a mix of booths and tables, wood panelling, some wall brick, ceramic tile and hardwood flooring. The overall effect — aided by round, pale-yellow floor to ceiling columns — is warm and pleasant.
A prominent feature is the buffet counter, with two different functions. At lunchtime Rio offers only a buffet option. Just as in a Chinese buffet style restaurant, everything available, hot or cold, is displayed on the self-serve buffet counter.
In the evening, for dinner service, the buffet contains side dishes only. The cooked meats, which are many, are served in what’s called rodizio style. In other words, the cooked meats are continually brought to each table, either on a platter or churrasco skewer. Slices from the skewered joints are carved for customers at table.
Each table is given a card that’s green on one side, red on the other. Green means keep on serving and red means enough already. Keep the green side up if you’re hungry for more, or turn the card over to red if you’re ready to scream uncle.
The price of the lunchtime meal at Rio is phenomenally low, $11.99 per person, excluding booze, coffee and dessert. It’s an all you can eat affair with a selection of hot meats, hot sides, cold salad fixings and fresh fruit. When I left, I felt like that lady in the IKEA commercial who, after thinking there’s been some mistake, runs across the parking lot toward her waiting husband screaming, “Start the car! Start the car!”
I began by fixing myself a salad plate: spinach leaves with sliced strawberries, American chunky, creamy style potato salad, coleslaw with a sweet tinge, chickpeas and hard cooked eggs. Bottled salad dressings were available. (It was a buffet at a great price so bottled was fine, and less messy.)
My hot plate included chicken thighs slathered with barbecue sauce, pork ribs with smoky sweet flavour permeating the meat, pork cubes with just a nub of cartilage in the odd piece and beans with ground beef over rice.
Finally I made a plate of fresh fruit consisting of large and beautiful fresh strawberries, pieces of orange, cantaloupe and honeydew melon. A delightful indoor picnic would be a good way to describe the Rio lunchtime experience.
My one suggestion would be to put signs on some of the buffet items to indicate what they are. For example, I wasn’t sure about the cubes of pork until I tasted them. (Chicken nuggets and fries are also available for the younger set.)
Our second visit to Rio Brazilian Steakhouse was for dinner at $26.99 per person, excluding booze, coffee and dessert. It was a different experience. This time we got the true Brazilian gaucho restaurant treatment. Each place setting had a dinner plate and smaller side plate. First we took the smaller plates and picked up our sides at the buffet. I chose cold accompaniments: corn and bean salad, shrimp with sweet and sour sauce, sweet potato chips, and mussels.
Next, Josué Lily, our rodizio or roundabout server, arrived with the first of what would be a procession of grilled, baked or fried meats. We were served beef ribs (costela), grilled lamb, chicken (frango), pork ribs (costela de porco), sirloin steak, pan fried previously frozen cod, pork loin (lombo), honey coated grapefruit, pork sausage (linguica), caramelized pineapple and baked banana.
Highlights included Fred Flintstone sized beef ribs. Falling from the bone the meat had rich beef and fat flavour. They alone could have made the meal. (Fred would have been giddy with excitement.)
The grilled lamb was marinated in rosemary and red wine, resulting in quite tender, savoury morsels. I also enjoyed the carved slices of sirloin steak, carved from the skewer for us by Josué Lily. (Despite being called a steakhouse, this is the only way steak is served at Rio. Do expect the beef to be cooked a little beyond medium.) And what card-carrying carnivore wouldn’t enjoy a nice plump, glistening grilled sausage redolent of garlic and oregano? Linguica they’re called in Portuguese.
Having eaten our way through portions of pretty much the entire menu, there was no room for more. Yet, I still ordered a slice of tuxedo mousse cheesecake with drizzle of Bailey’s.
What’s the saying? In for a penny, in for a pound? My guilt was slightly assuaged by the delicious cake being less cheesy and lighter than expected.
Rio Brazilian Steakhouse delivers good food for good value in attractive surroundings. We had fun dining there. I believe you will, too. The Brazilian gaucho restaurant concept is new to St. John’s and I applaud the owners for bringing it to our town.
Now if we could only get a Thai, Persian, Moroccan, Nigerian, Malaysian …
Rating: * * * — Excellent
Price: Lunch for two with wine, tax and tip: $47 (approximately)
Dinner for two with wine, tax and tip: $115.00 (approx.)
Sound level: Moderate.
Karl Wells is an accredited personal chef, author of “Cooking with One Chef One Critic” and recipient of awards from the national body of the Canadian Culinary Federation and the Restaurant Association of Newfoundland and Labrador.
Contact him through his website, www.karlwells.com.
Follow him on Twitter: @karl_wells.