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Meat Rack

A firefighter and a volleyball player make things sizzle at Em Chamas.

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You know I'm a sucker for those four magical words: all you can eat. I even like the words when they're attached to a third-rate Chinese buffet or one of those seemingly lavish but not so good casino spreads. Just hand me a plate and point me in the direction of a buffet table, and I'm in hog heaven.

But until Nick Silvio and Jeff Petersen opened Em Chamas Brazilian Grill, their South American-style churrascaria in the Northland's Tuileries Plaza, I had no idea that a buffet could be seriously high-quality or that I could ever boast of eating 10 different kinds of roasted meat at one sitting. I promise I didn't make a porco out of myself — unlike the Kansas City Chiefs player who reportedly indulged so heartily that Silvio briefly worried what would happen if the player brought his teammates to the restaurant.

Silvio undoubtedly knows about feeding hungry men; he' a Kansas City, Missouri, firefighter when he's not working at his two-month-old restaurant. Still, I wondered how he and Petersen decided to bring the beloved tradition of a Brazilian steakhouse to the northern suburbs — even though I knew that both had worked for Silvio's older brother, Sam, at the original Piropos restaurant in Parkville.

"Jeff played volleyball at Park College with some Brazilian students and fell in love with churrascarias when he visited his friends in southern Brazil," Silvio told me. "I had eaten in Brazilian steakhouses in Chicago and New York, and I couldn't understand why no one had brought the concept to Kansas City. So Jeff and I put together a business plan and opened Em Chamas."

The name translates as "in flames," which obviously has a double meaning for Silvio, who was wearing an apron and waiting tables on one of my two visits. "One of our waiters couldn't make it in to work," he said with a shrug. "It's St. Patrick's Day."

Waiters at Em Chamas have a slightly easier job than the half-dozen or so handsome, knife-wielding passadores who wander through the dining room carrying sizzling, juicy hunks of meat skewered on dangerous-looking metal rods. They gracefully slice off choice slabs of meat and then use the steel knives to position the pork loins or the filets so they fall softly on diners' big white plates. A friend of mine calls this lusty meat-slashing experience "dining with the Spartans" because the passadores (who are also responsible for keeping watch over meats roasting on the wood-burning grill back in the kitchen) handle those gleaming blades with all the skill of the warriors in 300. But they wear a good deal more clothing.

I say waiters have it a bit easy here because Em Chamas doesn't have a menu. Silvio says some customers don't quite understand this when they walk in and discover that there's a single price for the meal — $34.95, which doesn't include drinks, dessert or gratuity — and that no one "orders" in the traditional sense. Sometimes Silvio explains the concept by escorting patrons into the dining room and pointing out the "gourmet bar," or taking them into the kitchen to see the succulent meats turning on the rotisserie above white-hot pecan wood. It's a mouthwatering experience to see all that juicy meat spinning and hissing.

Silvio and Petersen had to raise the dinner price by five bucks a couple of weeks ago when they realized that their food costs were seriously steep. Em Chamas may be a place to eat all you want, but the clientele it's aiming for is the Capital Grille and Plaza III crowd, not the folks who haunt the Hometown Buffet. When Silvio and Petersen say they offer a gourmet bar as part of the meal, they mean gourmet.

On my first visit, chef Keith Massey was overseeing the kitchen; the cold fare at the bar included tiny ruby slices of seared ahi tuna, artichokes, hearts of palm salad and couscous. Massey has since left Em Chamas; he was replaced by Brazilian-born Ione do Santos, who brought more regional Brazilian recipes to the buffet. By the time this column was printed, though, do Santos had been replaced by Argentinian chef Tomas Di Gregorio.

No matter who's in charge, meals all begin with a basket of warm, doughy Pao de Queijo — balls of cheese bread made with manioc starch, which really must be eaten immediately, before they turn into something chewy and not nearly as tasty. At some point during dinner, a server brings out a palate-cleansing dish of honey-soaked baked bananas dusted with cinnamon sugar. "Bananas, cheese balls, juicy slabs of meat," my friend Ned whispered. "Am I the only one who sees a sexual subtext to this food?"

Bob and I ignored him. Our own revelation was that we had eaten too much from the bar, so by the time different passadores came around to offer us slices of ribeye, sausage, pork loin, turkey and lamb, we were too full to look at anything passing through the room.

"It's a meat lover's paradise," announced beef-loving Bob. He wondered what would happen if vegetarians wandered in for dinner. They might enjoy a few things at the bar, which is available on its own for a reduced price. This buffet stocks excellent salads and vegetable dishes as well as feijoada — the black-bean-and-rice stew that's considered the national dish of Brazil. (It might not work for the meatless contingent, though, because the black beans are cooked with a bit of pork.)

On the night that I dined with Durwin and Lewis, the buffet included chef do Santos' addition of salpicao, a wonderful cold salad of shredded chicken made with fresh sweet peppers, mayonnaise and cream cheese (yes, it's as rich as it sounds), along with chilled oysters topped with fresh pico de gallo, a Caesar salad, a lovely Asian-style glazed chicken, and a concoction of fresh tomato and cucumber.

Once again, we ate too much. But I had warned Durwin and Lewis not to eat lunch that day, so we were ready when the server replaced the first set of plates with empty dishes for the meat: roasted chicken, then sausage, followed by top sirloin, chicken hearts (a Brazilian delicacy that tastes a bit like chicken liver), filet mignon wrapped in bacon, lamb, bacon-wrapped turkey, skirt steak and pork ribs.

Seeing the passadore with the pork loin, we quickly turned over the little cardboard circle on the table — one side reads "Yes," the other "No." I told my companions that after my first visit to Em Chamas, Ned had pocketed the circle and taken it home. "I might use it at a bar someday," he told me, "and see how it works there."

I never heard how that worked out, but at Em Chamas, yes and no are two important words to add to my other four favorites.

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