Let there be light: Samba Grille injects hope into post-Angelika Bayou Placewith South American swagger
By opening day, Bayou Place's new Samba Grille was already nearly an old haunt to many well-connected foodies.
Between the well-connected quartet of managing partners Estella Erdman and Nathan Ketchum, Cordúa-alum chef Cesar Rodriguez and wine director Marc Borel (of foodie favorite 13 Celcius), it seemed like a full quarter of the restaurant community had attended the friends and family preview on the eve of opening with rave reviews.
Stopping in for a lunch around the corner from the darkened Angelika, I found that the 5,000-square-foot Samba felt both open and airy — light pours in from the mezzanine windows — yet solid and elegant, with a nod to tradition in the deep reds on the walls and plush semi-circle banquettes.
In lieu of a boring bread basket, Samba serves cheese rolls — firm and starchy on the outside and just short of oozing with parmesan in the center. It's a challenge not to let them spoil the meal.
Starters are familiar steakhouse fare served with a South American twist — crab cakes blended with yucca, steak tartare with fried plaintain chips, etc.
Served with a spicy-sweet sauce, the pastels, or empanadas, come in a trio of beef, seafood and black bean versions. While each was dense, flaky and flavorful — there's no skimping on ingredients here — the beef was by far the favorite, with a jolt of peppery spice that elevated it above the competition.
We also dug the gambas buñuelas, six jumbo shrimp tempura-fried with yucca and served with a dark guava jelly. The crispy, ungreasy yucca made us wonder why we fry things in anything else, and the shrimp still had a bit of snap. The only recommendation? We preferred them dipped in the pastels' sauce.
The Jade soup is authentically bright green, an ultra-creamy puree of spinach and broccoli with a healthy serving of crab meat gratin on top. Thick and rich without losing the slightly bitter vegetable flavor, it worked as a soup but would also be delightful as a steak sauce or underneath a filet of salmon.
The signature dish of the a la carte lunch (for dinner Samba turns into a churrascuria featuring all-you-can-eat cuts of rotisserie meat for $40) must be the gaucho, a South American steak served with chimichurri sauce, sweet plantain and grilled veggies. True to its origin, the rich natural flavor of the meat takes center stage, with the chimichurri as a rich, garlicky afterthought. Cooked to perfection, it's an indulgent experience, and a rare one in a dining scene that seems to never run out of things to put truffles on.
The pan-seared pork medallions were served as a duet atop sofritos — plantains that had been sliced, smashed and fried into a parmesan-like base. Thick, tender and juicy, the medallions were so rich and flavorful they outshone even the steak. (We were so busy diving in to the neat little stacks we couldn't be bothered to photograph them.)
The only slight disappointment was the pasta dish, paglia e fieno. the spinach and white fettuccine pasta were ever-so-slightly too heavy, the manchego sauce was ever-so-slightly too rich and the roast chicken pieces were brutally overcooked.
Another strong mark for Samba Grille is the service. If one expects a new restaurants to have some kinks to work out in the early days, it did not show at all, with a server that was attentive and knowledgeable but not omnipresent and an engaged management. (During our visit Erdman, Borel and even Rodriguez were all on the floor visiting diners.) The downtown lunch crowd has yet to discover this place, but the timing and level of service are already top-notch — key for a restaurant aiming for a pre-theater crowd.
A steakhouse downtown may be nothing new, but Samba's South American swagger separates them from the pack.