Day of the Week: Saturday, 12/8
Total Bill: $256.36 (before tip)
Breakdown: 5 drinks, 2 glasses of wine, 1 bottle of wine, 15 tapas, 2 desserts
Pros: Not the same old tapas, nice cocktail menu, good atmosphere.
Cons: Restaurant may still be experiencing some growing pains.
Verdict: A tapas restaurant that brings something new to the table.
Whenever we write a review we try to give a sense of the entire experience. Usually it’s just Hubby and me on these outings. Occasionally we have some family along (as with Taste of Westshore) or one other person (as with Ella’s), but since it’s usually just the two of us it’s pretty easy to separate the company from the place. But in my experience almost anything will taste good if you’re enjoying the people you’re with. So this is a tough review to write because we went with some new friends and had such a good time with them that I’m having a hard time telling you about Samba Room itself. But I’m going to try.
I’ve wanted to try Samba Room since before it opened when I found out Felicia Lacalle (formerly Roy’s pastry chef) would be the executive chef. I was a big fan of Felicia’s at Roy’s so I was excited to see what she could do outside of dessert. We were originally going to a different tapas restaurant this night but one of our dining companions told us he wasn’t a fan and, since he knows his food, we renegotiated to Samba Room. Samba Room is in the old Ceviche building (after Ceviche moved to the old Circles Bistro building, and Circles moved to a plaza near our house – it’s like restaurant musical chairs), so in addition to being excited to try Felicia’s food, I was excited to see if/what had changed about the location.
Hubby and I got there about 6:20. (Valet parking is $5.) We don’t usually eat dinner so early but we were going to a comedy show at 10:15 and we didn’t want to rush dinner. Our friends hadn’t arrived yet, so we went to the bar to wait. The actual bar is much larger now; they extended it into a U shape, versus the old L shape along the wall. They also removed a lot of tables to make a dance floor, so the room seems much bigger now. Our bartender was very friendly and told us about the drinks, the restaurant, and the menu after we told him it was our first time there.
About 20 minutes later our friends arrived and joined us in the bar. They agreed the bar remodel was a big upgrade. After some quick hellos a glance at the cocktail list, we went to get our table. The changes in the restaurant are subtle. The reception area is pretty different, but mostly they’ve removed tables and clutter so that the restaurant is easier to get around in and doesn’t feel as cramped. One great thing about the restaurant is that the dining area is composed of several smaller rooms, which keeps the noise level down and the general feel cozy (warming, as our friend put it). He also noted you can see out of the dining room windows now, which has a great view of the tropical landscaping outside.
Since our friends also love food, our first round of tapas was:
- Arepas (“shredded beef, Colombian corn cake, queso fresco”), $9. This was fantastic. The beef was perfectly seasoned and the corn cakes were awesome.
- Remolachas (“baby beets, goat cheese crema, spiced candied walnuts”), $9. Really good, although I would’ve liked a few more beets on the plate. It was also served with some type of baby lettuce.
- Ajis shishito (“shishito pepers, blistered and accompanied by a habanero aioli”), $7. We first had shishito peppers at Sushi Samba (both in Vegas and in NYC on Park) and I think Samba Room’s are better. These were milder than the others we’ve had, so the flavor seemed more pronounced.
- Coles de bruselas fritas (“fried brussel sprouts, sherry vinaigrette, crispy bacon, parmesan”), $6. These are not the brussel sprouts your mama made! They pull the leaves apart before they fry them, then add bacon and cheese. HELLO! Even Hubby almost liked them (almost).
- Chicharrones glaceado con guyaba (“guava glazed pork belly, crispy malanga croquette, jicama chayote slaw”), $9. One of the other standouts of the evening. The pork belly was cooked really well and the croquette was awesome.
- Almejas y chorizo (“chorizo and clams, spicy tomato broth”), $9. I’m not usually a fan of this type of dish but this one was really good. I think my problem is that the broth is usually too greasy and this wasn’t greasy at all.
- Chicharrones (“fried pork rind, seasoned with lime and sea salt”), $6. I only had one piece because I could feel my arteries clogging just looking at it but it was delicious. Really smoky pork flavor.
- Atun fumador (“Arturo Fuente smoked tuna, shishito peppers, grape tomatoes, sour orange mojo vinaigrette”), $12. Hubby loved this but the tobacco did nothing for me.
- Tostones (“fried green plantains, black bean puree, pickled onion, cilantro garlic aioli”), $9. These were a big hit at our table. Quite spicy because there was also a slice of jalapeno on them.
- Papas bravas (“crispy potatoes, spicy smoked paprika aioli”), $6. These are DELICIOUS but don’t get them if you don’t love spicy food because they are NO JOKE. Even Hubby said so and he’s a wild man.
- Ceviche de camaron y vieras (“lump crab ceviche, mango, papaya, habanero lime infusion”), $12
- Ceviche de mango (“mango and snapper ceviche, red onion, avocado, Peruvian yellow pepper marinade”), $10
- Ceviche de pescado (“fresh fish ceviche, Peruvian red pepper marinade”), $9
None of the ceviches stood out for me, which is my usual assessment of ceviche in restaurants. The table-wide verdict on these ceviches was that the fish was overcooked, which is apparently the thing I usually don’t like about ceviche. After I thought about it, though, it made sense that ceviche in restaurants is overcooked. Once the fish is in the marinade it starts cooking and it doesn’t stop until you eat it. But it takes a little while to cook. So you can’t start making it when someone orders it because it will take too long. But it’s not like something you cook over heat that you can take off the heat and it stops cooking. So I guess we’ll just have to make our own (now that we know how).
With our first round of tapas, one of our companions and I both had a glass of red wine from Spain called Numanthia Termes Tinta de Toro ($10, glass). Samba Room’s wine list is appropriately heavy on Spanish and South American wines, which is fun for me. I like to try new things and I like South American wines anyway. The Numanthia was not my thing, though (too fruity).
It was also around this time I decided our waiter was so-so, although I think I was in the minority on this. He never was particularly friendly but I’d say right about the time we ordered our wine he began to disappear for unusually long stretches of time. More on this shortly.
We decided we needed to try a couple more things before throwing in the towel. For round two we ordered:
- Frituras de maiz (“Cuban corn fritters, smoked jalapeno crema”), $7. Another phenomenal dish.
- Camaron y aguacate ahumado (“smoked shrimp and avocado mousse, served in a pestle and mortar,” served with freshly made chips), $12. This didn’t really ring my bell. Maybe I was already too full. The chips were too thin to make dipping possible, and I don’t see the point of the mortar. (Of course, this was not truly served in a pestle AND mortar since the pestle is the club-like implement used for grinding.) Also, this was not served with a spoon for dipping and our waiter had not replaced our silverware after clearing our plates from round one, so eating it was a challenge. And if I have to put too much effort into eating something, I lose interest.
While we were waiting for round two, we decided we needed more wine. One of our companions asked to sample three red wines. After everyone had tasted them, we decided to order a bottle of one of them, the Bodegas Norton Barrel Select Malbec from Argentina ($30). Our waiter brought three glasses right away…then disappeared for probably five minutes before returning with a fourth glass and the bottle. Don’t know what that was about but it was weird. The wine was good, though. A great wine to share with a group because it’s not too much of anything: not too fruity, not too spicy, not too full-bodied, not too light.
After we had finished our round two tapas, Hubby and I ordered dessert (our friends abstained). He ordered the tres leche (“three milk soaked sponge cake, salted caramel, honey white chocolate mousse”) and I had the pudin de pan con guayaba (“guava cream cheese bread pudding, dulce de leche gelato”), each $8. I was very eager for this part of the meal, knowing what a fantastic job Felicia always did with dessert at Roy’s. My bread pudding was excellent. Hubby doesn’t even like bread pudding and he said it was really good. But Hubby’s tres leche was a disappointment for me. A common problem with tres leche is that people put too much liquid in it and it gets soggy and mushy. Unfortunately, that happened here. The flavor was excellent but the texture did not work for me. I would try it again in the future, though, in case it was just an off night.
Overall, Samba Room is a great restaurant. I love that they’ve gone beyond a typical tapas menu (the meatballs in tomato sauce, something involving Serrano ham, etc.). In fact, Samba Room reminds me more of Sushi Samba than, say, Ceviche (previously our favorite tapas restaurant in Tampa), and that’s a big compliment. Sushi Samba is a heavy hitter, with restaurants in NYC (two of them), Las Vegas, Miami, and now London. Chef Lacalle has a really bright future and I’m sure Samba Room will thrive under her direction.