First Taste

Samba Grille changes up its menu, emerges as one of Houston's top restaurants

Samba Grille changes up its menu, emerges as one of Houston's top restaurants

News_Samba
Getting talked into another dessert worked taste wonders. Photo by Sarah Rufca
News_Samba_dessert
Samba Grille is distinguishing itself as one of the best restaurants in Houston — period. Photo by Sarah Rufca
News_Samba
It's not just about the meat anymore at Samba Grille. Photo by Sarah Rufca
News_Samba
Photo by Sarah Rufca
News_Samba
Photo by Sarah Rufca
News_Samba
Photo by Sarah Rufca
News_Samba
News_Samba_dessert
News_Samba
News_Samba
News_Samba
News_Samba

I wasn't the only one going to Samba Grille and ignoring the rodizio menu, according to the restaurant's owner Nathan Ketchum, .

In June Ketchum announced that based on customer preferences and feedback, the all-you-can-eat meat option would be dropped with more focus on the popular a la carte menu. "The rodizio is about variety and quantity, so it took up a lot of space in the kitchen," general manager Greyson Lewis says. "We thought we could we could make better use of it by focusing on the a la carte menu."

And with new executive chef Cesar Rodriguez installed, Samba is keeping the favorites (like those incredible gluten-free yucca rolls) but also showing some movement in a very interesting direction.

Rodriguez says he is bringing flavors and ingredients from his native Ecuador, and notes that Peruvian Latin Bites Cafe is the only other restaurant in town making a serious attempt at refined South American fare.

Starting out with a plate of ceviche mixto (shrimp and fish) served on an open plate, it certainly begged a comparison to the excellent version at Latin Bites, down to the corn nuts and extra-tangy shot of leche de tigre. Other starters are mixed between the heartily South American (like the ambitious "antichuchos" skewers of beef heart and soft fried yucca) and the American favorites like crab cakes and roasted pork belly squares — with Chris Shepherd temporarily off the scene, Samba's succulent, syrupy version with a tamarind glaze might be the best in town.

 It's becoming clear that Samba is not just one of the best South American restaurants in town, but one of the best restaurants in town. Period. 

The a la carte steaks haven't really changed, but they are so delicious and flavorful a write up of the menu is really incomplete without mentioning them. Marinated in chimichurri for a robust flavor and a juicy consistency, every steak is Prime-certified Angus beef and the difference is palpable.

One area of the menu that still feels a bit uneven is the seafood. The lobster and grits comes with the fragrant aroma of saffron emulsion and a hint of coconut from the grits. Samba makes great emulsions, but on this dish it's a bit like too much of a good thing, as flavors compete yet don't cover a cover a main course that's a hair too dry. The red snapper topped with a shrimp and maracuyá beurre blanc was marred by a bitter taste that emerged from either the charred plantain shell it was served in or the red pepper salad that came alongside (I can't be sure but I think it was the latter.)

However the "sweet-n-spicy" sea scallops are absolutely divine, with a crust of panela (Latin American cane sugar) on top and a froth of rocoto pepper and black quinoa grain for a hint of crunch.

Desserts — if you can get there — are top-notch, and I was happy to be talked out of my deep love for tres leches in favor of a plantain fritter served with a scoop of mild guanabana sorbet and an ice-cold, freshly shaken shot of vanilla bean milk. Let me just say there is nothing not delicious about sweet plantain battered and fried in yucca. Nothing.

I can't say that I'll miss the rodizio service, but even in a period of flux, it's becoming clear that Samba is not just one of the best South American restaurants in town, or one of the best steakhouses in town, but one of the best restaurants in town. Period.