Houston restaurant reviews, industry profiles and food culture

Restaurant Review

August 24, 2010

Vibrant Samba Grille Brightens Downtown Houston

Samba Grille in Pictures

Photos by Chuck Cook (@bitspitter). Full gallery at http://www.flickr.com/bitspitter.

Calamari at Samba Grille

Picture 1 of 12

Quick Facts

Location: 530 Texas at the Verizon Wireless Theater Plaza
Chef: Cesar Rodriguez

Item Pricing (lunchtime):

Samba Crab Cakes: $14
Calamari Strips: $8
Jade Soup: $6 cup / $10 bowl
Gaucho (South American-style steak): $22
Samba Sunfish: $17
Tres Leches: $9
Apple Pie Empanadas: $9

A Preview of Samba Grille

by Phaedra Cook

Yesterday, Chuck and I had the honor of attending a special “Friends and Family” test run at Samba Grille. I expected there would be a few things to iron out along the way. After all, the signs weren’t even up yet, one of which sat in a cart in front of Verizon Wireless Theater Plaza, waiting patiently for someone to come hoist it into the metal framework on the building.
What we encountered instead was a place that is fully ready to start delighting customers with its South American offerings. From the details of the food—which partner/manager Nathan Ketchum has been closely involved with—to the training of the staff (everyone I spoke with had tried several of the dishes already), this place is ready for prime-time.
Indeed, prime-time theatergoers will likely be one of its biggest customer contingents, along with executives and office workers who have been wishing for a new place downtown for a nice lunch. Samba Grille will provide rodizio service in the evening for those looking for a fine dinner date and a timely à la carte lunch to rushed workers during the day.
I’ve been to two downtown restaurants in the past two weeks that could not provide me with an entrée within 45 minutes. Samba Grille served our beverages immediately, an appetizer six minutes later and an entrée about 10 minutes after that. It is a refreshing change.
Nathan Ketcham is not just a restaurateur; he loves the details of food. He was personally involved in developing their custom passion fruit iced tea—a blend of fruit with black and green teas. I drank it with no sugar and could not detect a trace of bitterness.


The staff at Samba Grille

Sommelier Marc Borel had already proven himself to be a pairing genius at his previous gig with 13 Celsius, especially when selecting complements to the work of Jody Stevens of jodycakes. (Cupcakes and wine? Yes, please!) Samba Grille’s broad menu gives Marc a lot to play with, and he has already developed his wine list. I look forward to a return visit to try his suggestions.
To keep me coming back, a restaurant must have a dish that I crave. Samba Grille has two of these: their calamari strips and their amazing, creamy, substantial tres leches cake. Even though I just had these yesterday, I could happily have them again today.


The calamari strips at Samba Grill. Tender and delicious!

Unlike typical rings-and-tentacles calamari, Samba Grille’s are cut into strips from thicker, flat pieces of squid, before being breaded with herbed, fine panko crumbs and deep-fried. On the menu, the calamari includes a side of romesco sauce, but it was not available on our visit. Instead, we had it with the house aioli, which was delightful—creamy and slightly spicy with peppadew pepper bits. I think it could be addictive, and Nathan said it was his favorite sauce. If you order the calamari, you might want to request the aioli on the side in addition to the romesco.
The house aioli normally accompanies the crab cakes. The three little cakes acquire a spicy, earthy South American flair from aji (Peruvian hot pepper) and a unique yucca flour binding.
The tres leches is as fine as I have ever had, and the perfect portion for two to share. The sweet combination of milks gently seeps from the cake to your plate, daring you to swipe them up with every bite. The cake is pleasingly dense, but lighter than typical bread puddings, and is topped with whipped cream.
If you aren’t looking for a substantial dessert like the Tres Leches, try the surprisingly-light apple empanadas.
The Jade Soup is a verdant concoction of cream with pureed spinach and broccoli, topped with nice chunks of crabmeat. We found it to be very rich and flavorful, but there was a little too much salt, which overpowered the delicate seafood. We mentioned this to the staff and hope to find a less-salted version there in the future, as it is well worth trying again.
I wanted to try the Gaucho steak with chimichurri sauce, as it is the stereotypical dish I think of when I consider South American food. We ordered it medium rare, and it was cooked perfectly. It was a tender, moist piece of tenderloin (pounded to be flatter and wider), topped with some chimichurri with additional on the side. Samba seems to do sides exceptionally well, with garlic mashed potatoes that made me actually say “Wow!” aloud, and beautifully caramelized baked plantains that were slightly crisp and sweet on the outside—creamy and pleasantly tangy on the inside. If you get the plantains as a side, and your dining companion doesn’t, consider ordering extras or your friend might demand that you share.


The gaucho at Samba Grill is a lovely piece of tenderloin

We also ordered the Samba sunfish filets. I figured that any dish that a restaurant was willing to put its name on must be pretty good. If someone had told me that this dish was called “butter fish,” I would have totally believed them. There’s apparently a darn good saucier in-house, as these were coated with a made-in-the-pan velouté that was delicately flavored with maracuyá (yellow passionfruit). I’m not often a fan of white fish, but these made a believer out of me. Slightly smoky, grilled asparagus politely accompanied the fish, with their thicker ends pared to ensure no toughness.
Samba Grille is also doing something that I find very exciting: paella. This is a risky dish that I don’t usually order when I’m out, for two reasons. Either the restaurant requires advance notice (which I never think to give, since I never specifically go out for paella), or the word-of-mouth on the quality of the dish is uniformly negative. Samba Grille has developed a way to make paella de marisco that not only ensures that the rice picks up the flavor of the seafood, but that they can also finish and present in 20 minutes. Rice in this dish was generally a bit al dente, which Nathan explained is traditional for the texture. It is NOT paella with a crispy bottom (known as “socarrat”); Nathan said it is modeled after the Northern Spain version of the dish. The fish, mussels and large scallop included all looked and tasted very fresh, and there was a sear mark all along the outside edge of the scallop, proving it had kissed a pan or flat-top before its inclusion.
If Samba Grille is not a wild success, it certainly won’t be because of lack of hard work and preparation. The staff of Samba Grille has demonstrably worked hard. I wish the place a fabulous opening and a long lifespan.
Samba Grille’s “soft opening” is Thursday, August 24th and its grand opening is on September 7th, which is Brazilian Independence Day.

For a review of the rodizio dinner, check out Albert Nurick’s review at H-Town Chow Down!

Samba Grille on Urbanspoon

Disclaimer: This was a special, no-charge event as the restaurant was not officially open yet at the time I visited. I have done my utmost to use the same impartiality I’d use when considering any meal and believe that Samba did an outstanding job. I will not hesitate to return as a paying customer. Pricing was provided for regular service and is included here.

  1. Warning: Not to be read ‘n viewed when reallllly HUNGRY – the tummy growling may frighten bystanders… :D.

    Comment by Analog Girl — August 25, 2010 @ 3:17 pm

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