One, two, three, kick

The Samba Room looks -- and tastes -- marvelous

Hearts of palm salad, a watercress featherbed plugged with avocado and oranges woven with jicama strips and tender hearts of palm, was given sweet, heady breath from a vanilla-bean vinaigrette, setting up amusing tension with the citrus tang and palm-heart sourness.

Two things held back the Samba-style Caesar: a dearth of manchego cheese, and slices of grilled Peruvian purple potato that proved little more than cold, hard spud pucks. The latter touch seemed a clumsy attempt to make this dish rumba, though the fundamentals in this salad are sound (tangy lemon vinaigrette was generous with anchovy).

Samba service is friendly and efficient--perhaps excessively. Our server stopped by our table at least three times, lifted the wine bottle for a pour, and then let it slip back to the table when she saw our glasses were full. This brings me to the first of Samba's uglies: the wine list. Divided into sections titled "north of the equator" and "south of the equator," the list is riddled with interesting California selections and an appropriate roster of wines from South America. But the prices are excessive, bordering on a gouge.

Some examples: a Merryvale Hillside Cabernet Sauvignon will set you back $55 at Samba. That same bottle around the corner at Ziziki's is $39; Biernat's has it for $45. Samba charges $47 for a bottle of Bonterra Viognier. You can drink it at the Green Room for $39. Casa Lapostolle Cabernet Sauvignon from Chile is $37 at Samba, while Parigi takes $28 and Terilli's hits you for $24 for the same drink. The cork fee at Samba is an even bigger soak. If you want to bring your own wine, you'll be charged the price of the least expensive bottle on the list--currently $21--to have it served.

The second problem involves certain elements of service. After making a group reservation for Valentine's Day, we arrived at Samba to discover it was offering a four-course prix fixe menu for $50 a head, including a glass of mango champagne with pulp silt at the bottom of the flute. The price seemed a bit steep, especially when many of the components were on the regular menu and many totals fell well short of $50. Plus, there was no indication of this when the reservation was made, and our waiter said ordering from the regular menu was strictly forbidden. Guests at the next table protested vigorously and were permitted to order what they desired. We followed suit. It seems a bit outlandish to have to resort to spontaneous insurgency just to get what you want, especially since the limited menu seemed sprung on most guests after they were seated.

Samba Room is the handiwork of Carlson Restaurants Worldwide (operators of TGI Friday's, Star Canyon, and AquaKnox, among others) and its emerging brands division. The result is sharp and engaging with a menu that's as accessible as it is imaginative. By shaving a few dollars off the wine list and exercising some care in how special menus are applied, Carlson will have a restaurant that is nearly flawless. And then the rest of us can get back to watching and waiting for spontaneous table dances and Butler's conga rumble.

Samba Room. 4514 Travis St., Suite 132, (214) 522-4137. Open 5 p.m.-2 a.m. daily. $$-$$$

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