Updated Friday, November 16, 2012 at 06:28 PM
Fumaça Brazilian Steakhouse sits on the corner of First and Denny, its triangular front dining room pointed like an arrow directly at the cocktail bar Tini Bigs, which was where I would rather have been drinking one Friday night. Instead I was sipping a caipirinha at the six-seat bar in Fumaça's rear dining room, having arrived early for my reservation.
A cacophony of cellphone ring tones competed with the bouncy Brazilian soundtrack as I sat facing a grumpy bartender next to a stack of forgotten dishes bussed from a nearby table.
Fortunately, the drink was good. Then Sandra introduced herself and took us under her wing. With a wink and a warm smile, she promised us a table soon and expedited our order of bacalaito frito. Those creamy salt-cod fritters were paired with beets in a buttery yellow sauce that was flattering to both parties though not piquillo pepper coulis, as the menu said.
Things improved considerably after we were shown to a roomy window table. The bartender became our waiter, and his demeanor mellowed over the course of the evening.
Sandra kept her eye on us; and everyone else, too.
Sandra Pizarro, her daughter, Laura Arenas Pizarro (the hostess), and Maritza Texeira (the chef) are co-owners of Fumaça. The trio last worked together at the erstwhile Ipanema Grill and at Bellevue's Amazon Grill. Pizarro is Colombian; Texeira hails from Puerto Rico. Their staff comes from all over South America and the Caribbean, Pizarro tells customers proudly.
Fumaça's specialty is rodizio, the Brazilian method of spit-roasting meat and poultry over mesquite charcoal. It's served in swashbuckling style by "gauchos" who patrol the dining room brandishing spears of meat and carrying knives for tableside carving.
Diners, armed with tongs to grab the meat as it falls from the knife, indicate their readiness to receive by turning over a card: red means stop; green signals "hit me again."
A rodizio lunch or dinner includes all the meat you can eat (more than a dozen at night; fewer at lunch), plus unlimited access to the mesa de frios, a cold buffet.
Chafing dishes of rice and feijoada (a black-bean stew) augment the wide-ranging and sumptuous array of fresh fruits, vegetables, grains, cured meats and cheeses, all frequently refreshed and replenished. Virtually all the bowls and platters rest on ice.
This works fine for fruit and salads, but chilling mutes the flavors of some cooked vegetables; grilled squash, roasted cauliflower and eggplant, and Brussels sprouts sautéed with bacon taste like unheated leftovers.
If you hit the buffet more than once — and you will — it will put a serious dent in your capacity to consume much meat, all of which is salted with enthusiasm. (To revive the palate, the gauchos also circulate with cinnamon-dusted whole roasted pineapple, somewhat less than ripe in my experience.)
After sampling all the meats offered, I wished I'd had room for more of the tender tri-tip, juicy top sirloin, herb-seasoned lamb, moist pork loin, or bacon-wrapped turkey. Next time I would flip the card to red for gristly garlic steak, excessively salty "cheese steak," dry rib-eye, well-done fillet, over-charred chicken thighs and ho-hum pork sausage.
Fun and festive as rodizio can be, I was more enthralled by several small plates from the a la carte menu that are, by the way, half-price during happy hour. In addition to the salt-cod fritters mentioned above, there are divine empanadas: turnovers delicately fashioned from yucca root, filled with savory stewed beef and served with a side of tart chimichurri.
For seafood fans, diced octopus, plump capers, tomatoes and red onion meet in a briny salad that is tossed with olive oil, lemon and smoked sea salt, and served in a martini glass.
Boston lettuce leaves cradled ceviche mixto. A dressing sharp with lime and chilies — aptly named "leche de tigre" (milk of the tiger) — bathed green-lipped mussels, large shrimp, bits of scallop, squid, octopus and rather too much red onion.
Grill-striped hearts of palm anchored a salad flaunting pink circles of watermelon radish, peppery young greens and vinaigrette tinted bright yellow with aji amarillo pepper.
Those tropical tones repeat in the décor, warming this window-wrapped restaurant almost as well as Sandra's smile.
Providence Cicero, Seattle Times restaurant critic, co-hosts "Let's Eat" with Terry Jaymes at 4 p.m. Saturdays on KIRO Radio 97.3 FM. Listen to past shows atwww.KIRORadio.com/letseat. Reach Cicero at email@example.com.
Fumaça Brazilian Steakhouse
101 Denny Way, Seattle
Hours: Lunch 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. daily, dinner 5-9:30 p.m. Sunday-Thursday; 5-10:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday; happy hours 3-6 p.m. daily, 10 p.m.-1 a.m. Friday-Saturday
Prices: $$$ (Dinner rodizio $39.95, children 5-11 $16.95; lunch rodizio $19.95 Monday-Friday, $23.95 Saturday-Sunday, children 5-11 $10.95; mesa de frios only $24.95 dinner/$13.95 lunch; a la carte small plates $9-$16, entrees $14-$34)
Drinks: Caribbean and South American cocktails; wine; beer
Parking: On street or in nearby lots
Sound: Festively noisy at night; quiet at lunch
Who should go: Fun for those fond of all-you-can-eat buffets; lighter appetites should check out a la carte small plates, half price at happy hour
Credit cards: All major
Access: Restrooms not accessible
ELLEN M. BANNER / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Fumaça Brazilian Steakhouse's octopus salad includes tomato, avocado and green olives. At right is the caipirinha, a cocktail made with cachaca, a Brazilian sugar cane rum.