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Picanha: A Bacchanal for Hungry Meat Lovers

At this Brazilian all-you-can-eat restaurant, the charcoal-grilled selections just keep on coming.

October 05, 2000|LINDA BURUM | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A sword-like skewer plunges into the center of your table; on it, there's a leg of lamb about the size of a watermelon. "Rare, medium or well?" asks the waiter dressed like a gaucho, enthusiastically slicing into it. A few minutes later another waiter comes by, bearing a pork loin dusted with Parmesan. Then comes another with some Argentine chorizo.

And still more gauchos follow, laden with tri tip, bacon-wrapped chicken breast, baby back ribs, filet mignon and finally the house specialty, picanha (pick-AHN-ya), a strip of top sirloin, spit-roasted--like all meats at Picanha Brazilian Grill & Bar--over an open fire of mesquite charcoal.

Situated in the heart of Burbank's newish entertainment zone near Media City Center, Picanha may be the Southland's most stylish Brazilian-style barbecue (churrascaria). Its high-ceilinged dining room, all in saturated shades of ochre and indigo, pulsates with carioca music. Tall, heavy-framed windows open onto the neighborhood's coursing street life. Live Brazilian music plays after 9 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and the sleek bar stays open until midnight on weekdays, 2 a.m. on weekends.

The waiters roaming the dining room look like sexy Marlboro Men in their gaucho pantaloons, tucked into heavy leather boots and cinched with wide, brass-studded belts. Rodizio--this sort of prix-fixe all-you-can-eat gaucho bacchanal--comes from the great cattle-raising estancias of southern Brazil. It has caught on like wildfire throughout that country.

Many German immigrants came to the pampas region, bringing their love of beer. This detail is not lost on Picanha's owners. They offer half a dozen draft brews, including the cloudy and appropriately rugged Widmer Brothers unfiltered Hefeweizen.

But they've also California-ized their churrasco slightly, restricting the customary panorama of cuts (which includes many organ meats, even chicken hearts) to familiar ones. And I've never seen the spicy sauce molho campanha here either, though perhaps I missed it. On the buffet, they do offer a big bowl of farofa: ground, toasted cassava meal that soaks up meat juices and bean sauce.

Picanha procures fine quality meats, subtly enhancing them either with rock salt or well-balanced marinades that don't overwhelm the meat's flavor. Some cuts, like the pork loin, may be leaner than many South Americans prefer. Very occasionally a piece will suffer from overcooking.

Churrascaria rule No. 1: Take dainty portions and pace yourself. It would be all too easy to fill up on Picanha's first-course salad buffet and devastatingly good pa~o de queijo, the chewy cheese rolls made with tapioca flour.

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The many salad choices vary, but usually you'll find beautiful plates of grilled vegetables, a heart of palm and tomato salad and fresh tabbouleh (there are a lot of Middle Eastern immigrants in Brazil) among other salads and more pedestrian vegetation. Vegetarians should also consult the side dishes on the hot buffet, which include creamy black beans, fluffy rice and grilled bananas. The buffet service by itself, without meat, goes for $7.95 at lunch and $13.95 at dinner.

The churrasco meats, served rapidly and in no particular order, start arriving every few minutes until you signal the gauchos to stop by turning the marker on your table red side up. The secret to a relaxing meal here is to keep your marker red while you're eating and turning it to green when you're truly ready for another serving.

Picanha's many amenities bring it close to a fine dining experience. The full bar mixes a fine caipirinha--a margarita-like cocktail made with lime juice and cachaca, a sort of Brazilian white lightning. There are well-selected, modestly priced wines from Argentina, Chile and California. Espresso drinks too.

Dessert seems beside the point after so much food, but a house-made passion fruit mousse has lots of fans. Should you want to linger for the weekend samba music in the bar area, several exotic, sweet drinks make an interesting ending to the meal. One, Trilha Amore, blends fruit juices, Absolut Kurrant and cream of coconut frothed with ice. Served soft-frozen, it's a sort of alcoholic tropical fantasy like nothing the gauchos ever knew.

BE THERE

Picanha Brazilian Grill & Bar, 269 E. Palm Ave., at 3rd Street, Burbank. (818) 972-2100. Open Monday to Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5 to 10 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 10 p.m. Full bar. Free parking under building. All major credit cards. Lunch for two, $26 to $38; dinner and Sunday brunch for two, $38 to $58.

What to Get: churrasco, salad bar, buffet, caipirinha.

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