Dining out in Tauranga now has some real ethnic diversity, thanks largely to some enthusiastic immigrants from various parts of the globe. Among the most recent, a young couple from Brazil have launched the city’s first churrascaria, or traditional Brazilian steakhouse.
It’s tempting to contemplate how far the city’s come, in terms of cuisine from faraway lands. Long-time residents will remember the novelty of authentic Italian restaurants such as Picolo Italia, when it first opened in Grey Street. The same premises now house a fine Mexican restaurant, while next door is the charming Cafe Versaille. A stone’s throw away is great dim sum at Eastern Ocean Restaurant. And so it should be - choices.
Taking up residence upstairs on the corner of The Strand and Spring Street, IntensiFire - billed as ‘the Real Steak House’ by its owners Alvaro Calegare and Virginia Nandi - has already been described as an exquisite slice of Brazil.
‘Al’ hails from Brazil’s largest city of Sao Paolo, but Virginia comes from the south, Rio Grande Do Sul (you need to hear that rolling off the tongue in Portuguese), where their South American-style rotisserie originates. Churrasco, Portuguese for ‘barbecue,’ is roasting with charcoal.
It originated with the gauchos, the South American cowboys who herded cattle on the continent’s huge pampas. In the modern version of the gauchos’ barbecues on open fires, ‘espeto corrido’ service centres on meat waiters who come to your table with knives and a large skewer – speared with meats ranging from beef and pork, to lamb and chicken.
“It’s like a parade,” explains Al, “we bring one skewer at a time to present to the customer. If they like it, we carve off a part in front of them – so they can choose what they want, and don’t want.” “We keep on bringing different skewers to satisfy everybody,” he says of the all-you-can-eat approach.
The couple have made the dining experience as traditional as possible. The staff dress in traditional clothing, the distinctive baggy pants worn for riding, teamed with white shirts. “The way we serve, the way we cook...even the music is traditional from the south of Brazil,” says Al.
While many travelers will insist the most tender meat they’ve ever eaten was in South America, Al Calegare is adamant that New Zealand has “amazingly good meat – which makes our life easier.” The meats are cooked on a rotisserie over a charcoal fire. Most of the meat is the same as that found in any supermarket, although different cuts are sought.
The cooking is simple, with a view to enhancing the flavour of the individual cut, with rock salt one of the key ingredients. Cuts of beef are liberally coated with the salt that “acts magically,” says Al. The cuts of meat absorb enough salt to become “extremely flavourful,” while most drops off in the cooking process, before the meat is carried to the table. “We are never going to over-salt the meat – each cut absorbs just enough to enhance its own particular flavours.” Some meat is also cooked with beer in another traditional method. The alcohol tenderises the meat and produces flavour. “We don’t overdo it – just a touch,” says Al.
IntensiFier’s traditional dishes extend beyond the skewers of meat to a bean stew, and a rice and kidney beans dish, which is eaten daily in Brazil for lunch or dinner.
The $47 set price provides for several courses including soup, a selection of Brazilian appetisers such as fried cassava, and lots of salads laid out buffet-style. Food writers before me have noted the price is competitive when you weigh up the cost of a three course meal – especially one that includes a good steak.
The buffet station has everything from pasta primavera, chicken lasagne, stuffed tomatoes and mushrooms, caramelised kumara and pumpkin, and mashed potatoes. A Brazilian potato and carrot mayonnaise is made daily. More “exotic” salads include green apple and beetroot.
Maybe it’s time for a little South American experience...