ON a grim, grey day in Darlington, when the first blast of winter was firing big, cold raindrops like bullets, it was natural to dream of somewhere warm and sunny.

As if by magic, less than a month ago, a Brazilian restaurant opened up on the grim plaza at Feethams, overlooking the brutalist town hall on one side, and looking down on a busy roundabout on the other.

It is the newest of seven restaurants, and the first outside Yorkshire, in the Estabulo chain, which offers “the authentic taste of the Brazilian rodizio”.

“Rodizio” means “rotating” as the meats are cooked on revolving skewers above open flames for hours. They are brought on the skewer to the table where they are thinly sliced so that the diner can use a pair of tongs to lift to their plate for eating.

The concept, once explained, is simple. All you can eat for £15.95 per person between 12 and 4pm when there are eight types of meat on offer, or £26.95 per person between 4pm and 10pm when there are 15 types of meat going round.

First of all, the diner selects their side dishes and accompaniments from a very attractive buffet table. There were at least 20 types of cold salads and slaws, gerkins and beetroots to choose from, plus four hot accompaniments – rice, potatoes, beans and creamy mushrooms – and a bakery’s worth of breads and focaccias. It all looked very fresh and, bedded on ice, very tempting.

The creamy mushrooms were very good, although not piping hot, and my favourite salad turned out to be rocket with sweet slivers of orange and bright red slices of chilli that was warm without being threatening.

The diner returns to their seat, and turns the card on their table from red to green which means bring on the meat. It arrives tableside every five or so minutes.

I’d arrived at 12.45pm on Tuesday and was the first in, although a few more escapees from the weather trickled in afterwards. This meant that I had the first carvings of the day. The default serving is medium to rare, although you may request a different level.

My first skewer was Brazilian steak, picanha. It didn’t seem uniquely Brazilian, but it was extremely good, its outside rubbed in a tasty, salty dressing, and its inside beautifully moist and smooth. It was followed by rump steak, or alcatra, which had a thicker, grainier texture, but again was a fine piece of meat.

The third skewer was a flight of pink sausages, juicy to the point of being explosive. The Portuguese chef, who spoke very little English, offered me two sausages, but already I could see this meat feast was going to be very filling, so took only one. I was expecting it to have a chorizo-type heat to it, but it didn’t – it was pleasantly mild.

Sobrecoxa de frango was next up, and this was my first disappointment. Despite the grand name, they were plain chicken thighs, well cooked but despite the promise of the yellow dressing, there was nothing special to them.

Whereas the cordeiro was a marvellous noisette of lamb, again wonderfully juicy and with a great lick of mint running through it – I may have got the full kick of mint through having the first carving off the skewer.

It was followed by a slice of sirloin, maminha, which was a good meaty piece of beef.

The seventh skewer was the one I was most looking forward to: barriga de porco, pork belly in a honey sauce. However, it was a second disappointment as it didn’t have the full porky flavour that belly usually rips in with and the honey sauce, although nicely oozy and sticky, was too sweet.

Finally came a cut of gammon, presunto. I did have the first carving so the outside was a little crusty and dry, but the inside was superb: salty and smoky with a sweet hint of pineapple. I dashed back to the buffet table for a teaspoonful of English mustard and it complemented it quite perfectly.

I sat back quite replete and quietly pleased at making it through all eight skewers, even if I only had a taste from each. However, I’d forgotten to turn my card from green to red, so the chef kept appearing with more skewers.

I had a sliver more Brazilian steak so as not to disappoint him. Like all the cuts, it came with a rind of fat on it, which I cut off, and it was without gristle or sinew – extremely easy eating without a need to chew. Nearly all the meat was naked, in that it didn’t have a powerful sauce to hide its shortcomings, and all of it was beautifully moist.

In the interests of research, I had a desert. It is a good looking desert menu, although I’m not sure how Brazilian a trio of Belgian chocolate deserts is. All deserts are £5.95, and I ordered a Pudim de Leite, which was described as a “classic Brazilian style toffee flan”. It was a nice, solid flan that the whole world rejoices in making, topped with a pleasant sticky sauce, but at 5p short of £6 it was pleasant in an ordinary sort of a way.

The meal – particularly the evening – is expensive, but there are no starters and you can guarantee to leave extremely full having dined on some fine cuts of meat (there are non-meat and fish dishes, but vegetarians may not be so content).

In its crystal clean surroundings, with a salad buffet good enough to dive into, Estabulo is clearly a cut above the American man-versus-meat restaurants that opened up everywhere a couple of years ago but have now faded away.

I stepped back on to the bald plaza at 2pm with the light rapidly draining to grey, I realised that the skewers sliced at the table had given a touch of theatre to the meal which had lit up an otherwise drab day.


Estabulo, Feethams, Darlington

Phone: 01325-787879

Website: estabulo.co.uk

Ratings (out of ten): Ambience 8, Food quality 8, Service 8, Value for money 7