Restaurant review: It's a protein parade at Tampa's Texas De Brazil

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You have to hand it to the upscale chains like Ocean Prime, Roy's and Texas De Brazil, newly opened near International Plaza in Tampa. They really know how to set a mood.

It helps that they start with bigger budgets than most independent restaurants, along with dedicated designers and plenty of practice, but the effect is still impressive. Texas De Brazil opens onto a large dining room framed by tall wood columns and soaring arches studded with hundred of metal rivets the size of my thumb. In some places, it almost seems like those rivets could serve a purpose — perhaps fastening the decorative wood to the wall — but certain areas are downright crowded with the jutting nubs, creating an almost menacing effect that's part Hellraiser set and part Spanish inquisition.

Enormous wrought iron chandeliers continue the Moorish keep theme, tempered by floor-to-ceiling windows in the back and a stupefying flower arrangement above the buffet that towers over the entire room. Of course, those windows look out over the office parks and traffic on this stretch of Boy Scout, but at least the flowers temper the severity of it all.

The food, however, fits the throwback medieval vibe. Texas De Brazil is a churrascaria, a dining trend that fits American tastes more than its Brazilian origins. All-you-can-eat meat, no need to get out of your seat.

From the kitchen comes a continuous stream of servers bearing skewers and sharp knives, eyes scanning tables to see who wants just one more slice of salty grilled beef, pork, lamb or chicken. It's easy to avoid them, just flip your small cardboard token to the red side. Green means go.

And by all means, go. Texas De Brazil knows how to season its meat — heavily, just salt and pepper — and knows how to grill it in the kitchen's gigantic rotisseries — medium rare, nice crust. Unless you have a fondness for poultry, you may want to avoid the bacon-wrapped chicken, even though it's moist and smoky from the pork fat. Pork loin is just as nicely prepared, and just as unexciting. But that's the meat's fault, not Texas De Brazil's.

Better are beautiful, ruby-red slices from a leg of lamb, and Texas De Brazil's crisp-skinned spicy sausage. But in the end, churrascarias are all about the beef.

Even tenderloin, the cow's least flavorful cut, is tender and lent character by salt and fire. Flank steak is much finer, the thin slices cut against the grain so that each tender bite falls apart in your mouth. The king of churrascaria meats is picanha, a sirloin cut that's gifted with a layer of fat that melts into the meat as it cooks thanks to the way it's folded onto the skewers. If picanha is all you eat, you could very well get your money's worth.

And yes, there's more to Brazilian steakhouses than just the meat. The buffet stations under that looming flower arrangement in the center of the room have all the usual salad fixings, a small array of hot accompaniments like sauteed mushrooms and creamy potatoes, and some high-end items like seared tuna or slices of prosciutto.

After you've flipped your token permanently to the red, there are also desserts. I suspect Texas De Brazil sends most of those home in boxes — even if you had the restraint to quit before rupture, the carrot cake, mousse cake and cheesecake portions are big enough to count as a meal. Except in America, of course.

Nope, we try to get our money's worth in this land of plenty, and when you shell out a little over $40 for a meal it can be difficult to say no to more. Try to take it slow and keep flipping that token to the red, otherwise a meal at Texas De Brazil turns into a breakneck experience that ends with an uncomfortable protein bloat and a vague sense of disappointment.

That said, Texas De Brazil could be the perfect place to have dinner with people you don't want to eat dinner with. All those rivets and decorator touches make the place raucously noisy. The constant traffic of meat-laden servers and buffet-goers is highly distracting. Encourage your guests to accept all meat that walks by, and you could waddle out of the place in record time having had little to no conversation.

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