Our undercover gourmet finds the churrascaria experience at Chamas rewarding for the self-disciplined.
Meat and right: Chamas at the Abu Dhabi InterContinental Hotel
There's an awful lot to be said for a restaurant without a menu: no orders to go wrong, no difficult decisions to be made, no calorie or price guilt to be levied and, best of all, no food envy as your gaze shifts longingly from your dining companion's juicy steak to your own limp aubergine. It's an approach that has worked for the Brazilian churrascaria restaurant Chamas at the Abu Dhabi InterContinental Hotel, with the restaurant still packed two years on from its opening.
That seems to be because, even given the recent explosion of exceptionally good meat-based restaurants in the capital, the quality of the meat at Chamas has remained superlative and is demonstrated by the simplest and most effective cooking method of all: the barbecue. For those unfamiliar with the churrascaria style of service, a quick précis: diners are provided with a plate and a mat for signalling waiters - green on one side, meaning "Bring it on", red on the other, meaning "Make it stop".
Periodically (every two or three minutes), a waiter will wander over with a hunk of charred meat on a giant skewer from which he will carve a juicy slice on to your plate. Of course, you are perfectly entitled to say no, but what it essentially means is that you get the chance to try everything - assuming, that is, you don't fall at the first hurdle. That hurdle? The salad bar. Don't go there. Not that there's anything wrong with the salad bar - in fact, it's extremely good. The Brazilian vinaigrette in particular packs an unusually vigorous, chilli-laden punch, and the lime-saturated salmon is tangy and refreshing. The ready-made salads - the usual potato, mango and chicken-laden recipes - are fresh enough, and on the other side of the salad bar the array of ingredients for make-your-own is perfectly adequate as well. There are also a couple of soups.
So why avoid it? Because it is filler that will, unless you have the appetite of a lion, interfere with your enjoyment of the main attraction and the real point of Chamas: the fantastic meat. Similarly untouched on our table of six when I visited last week were the large bowl of black beans, the rice and the farofa (a sort of stuffing-like seasoned manioc flour mixture) - all perfectly nice, but not what we were excited about. (There were two exceptions to the meat-only rule: the deep-fried polenta squares, rather like extra-crispy hash browns, disappeared in moments, and seconds were called for; and the skewers of charred pineapple were demanded again and again for the fruit's refreshing, palate-cleansing properties.)
And so to the meat. As seems customary at Chamas, in a move apparently calculated to sort out the real carnivores, the first waiter to approach the table bore a skewer of grilled chicken hearts. The genuinely chicken-hearted recoiled in horror, but the more adventurous souls took two each and pronounced them delicious. In fact, they were more novelty than delicacy, but bravado must be maintained and face saved, and they were certainly not unpleasant.
They also served to incite a burst of debate and laughter on the table, an experience played out across the lively dining room throughout the evening. The atmosphere at Chamas, salsa band aside, is clubby, sometimes raucous and notably unlike the self-conscious starchiness of many hotel restaurants. The chicken hearts were quickly forgotten as slices of aromatic, very faintly minty lamb were dealt on to our plates, closely followed by a huge tranche of rib-eye and some tiny beef sausages.
Skewer after skewer arrived, but those wise enough to hold back from the salad and the early, lesser cuts of meat were most able to enjoy the reward: rosy, glistening slices of beef picanha - the rump cover, probably the most delicious of cuts - charred on the outside, glowing pink in the middle. The only complaint? One or two of my companions found the meat over-salted, a result of the Brazilian style of seasoning, which involves rubbing the meat with lots of sea salt. While I love the crunch of salt flakes as a contrast to the soft, sweet flesh, those on a low-salt diet might want to avoid the crusty edges.
In fact, this lesson applies all round: it is all too tempting to give in to gluttony in the face of the Chamas experience, but if you want to leave feeling sated, not jaded, restraint truly is the watchword. Chamas, InterContinental Hotel, Bainouna Street, Abu Dhabi, 02 666 6888. Our reviewer's set meal for two without beverages cost Dh430. Restaurants are reviewed incognito and the meals are paid for by The National.