Restaurant press kits can sometimes make for raucously good reading. Writing is crisp. Cliches are punchy. Quotes are pithy and ripe with unaffected wisdom. Skimming through press releases often reveals precious little nuggets from chefs. Phil Butler, former executive chef of Chicago's acclaimed Havana Cafe Cubano and current chief chef of Dallas' Samba Room, says this about the new Latin-fusion Romper Room: "We don't have a dance floor, but we expect the ambience to drive our guests from their chairs to spontaneous by-the-table dances."
That's some pretty potent ambient force. And this dynamism not only drives guests into spirited fits. It also infects the staff.
"Occasionally Samba Room will feature live music, including impromptu performances on the conga drums by Chef Butler," the press kit continues. "Known to more than dabble in percussion, when congas are on hand and the spirit moves him, he tops off dinner with his own rendition of 'Babalu.'"
Man, this did it for me. Screw the Latin-American fusion menu and the gauzy curtains cordoning dining areas from the cigar lounge. The wine cabinet with "Conga" and "Cha Cha," lettered over the top? The 25-foot mural depicting pre-Commie Cuba with island architecture, palm leaves, and "hypnotic Spanish eyes"? Screw those too. While you're at it, screw the "stunning serpentine bar" crusted with dark wood that brings forth the "hazy, black-magic feel of the islands" and the wooden shutters that "provide ambient light but provide privacy from the activity on the street."
All I wanted to see were spontaneous table dances and a chef possessed by the spirit of Ricky Ricardo. Instead, I got a 26-year-old goateed man named Butler who stood in front of the open kitchen expediting and examining plates as they were expelled from the line. (I knew it was he because on the first visit I brought this molten Latin woman with me from San Francisco who did the cha-cha in her seat upon recognizing him. She had scoured the press kit more than I did.) Sometimes he would go to the front of the restaurant and rap with the host. And that host, dressed in jet black like all the non-serving Samba boys, was so fussily primped that I was desperate for this magician of Cuban cookery to do an impromptu conga on his perfectly highlighted and waved coif.
No such luck. But Samba guests are probably more fun anyway. Because the Samba Room crowd goes way beyond "beautiful people" posturing. A particularly vogue trio, two girls and a bespectacled boy toy, caught my eye as they made their way to the bar. The more overtly stunning of the two women plopped her purse onto a barstool and made her way to the restroom (which my friend said was just about the best she'd ever test-driven). When she returned to her seat, she and the boy toy flirted, flashed, fluttered, stroked, and generally rummaged over each other to the exclusion of the other woman. She became an accessory in this mating mambo. And she wasn't unattractive, either.
This brought a question to mind concerning the philosophical underpinnings of the Samba Room. Is it better to look good than to taste good? The puzzle was answered with the arrival of the whole red snapper. This gangly, golden-crusted fish with its back split open to accommodate a wad of fluffy, moist cilantro rice, had a mug only a mother could love. It was so ugly, I wanted to look it in the eye as I ate it, just to see if it got cute in a shar-pei sort of way. It didn't matter. The flavor was extraordinary; the contrasts, compelling. Delicately flaky, dank, sweet white flesh was armored in a deep-fried mix of buttermilk and flour that was not greasy at all. A puddle of roasted garlic and tomato fish broth surged with a sweet tang and made you forget the silly fried plantain planks stabbed into the back of the thing like windsurfing sails.
I think that was the ugliest thing I saw, at least on a plate. Grilled sea bass looked better, but it still had personality: firm, fine in texture--almost melting-moist at some points--and sheathed in a barely perceptible crust. A puddle of tomato mojo punched it with earthy zest.
What's striking about the Samba Room's food is the deft balance struck in virtually every creation. There's little self-indulgent play here. It's approachable yet provocative. The sauteed shrimp and chicken with bell pepper in coconut broth was so seamless that only hints of contrast remained. This may easily be construed as dull, but it is not. Cinnamon and ginger scented the broth, which held a plug of fluffy rice. A frugal application of peanuts and cashews (and a surge of heat) gave the goo some knuckle without pointlessly cluttering and distracting from the mouth feel of the firm, juicy meat.
Appetizers held almost as much amusement. Four strips impaled on wooden picks and assembled in a lean-to fashion, jerk chicken had juicy, moist, spicy meat. A side of red cabbage coleslaw with jicama was crisp and understated. But the dark brown pineapple-banana sauce with butter and rum was too cloying, too void of spark, to be of much use.
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.
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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. $$-$$$