I’ve always thought Samba Room was the coolest of the eateries on Restaurant Row. In my imagination, it's what the swank clubs of Havana in the ‘40s must have been like. Lighting, décor and music come together in a moody meld that is not so much romantic as it is seductive. The coffered ceiling undulates throughout the large space, sheer drapes may be pulled back to provide a more secluded rendezvous, and throughout the meal the rhythmic beat of Latin music pulses and begs to be danced to.
Latin, of course, is the overriding theme of the menu, although, just as with the original, the current bill of fare does not claim authenticity. It is more a reimagining of Latin American and Hispanic dishes.
Still, no amount of imagination can explain why there is a Thai satay appetizer and an entrée of Japanese soba noodles. A press release on the new Samba Room claims a Latin-Asian fusion, but simply putting stir-fried buckwheat noodles on the menu next to Spanish paella does not constitute fusion. Now a paella made with soba noodles – that’s another thing.
But why mess with something as good as the original paella ($25.50)? Samba Room’s rice based version, boldly seasoned with intense saffron, had generous portions of shrimp, mussels, squid and chicken and a half a lobster.
Even better than the paella was the Argentinean style skirt steak ($21.50). The thin steaks, well marinated and seasoned, were folded together so as to appear to be a thicker cut of meat, I suppose. Skirt steak can be tough but this was tender. And the traditional chimichurri sauce was a nice complement. My companion also requested a side dish of shiitake mushrooms al ajillo, leathery flat caps in a subtle garlic sauce, that offered another dimension of taste as well as texture.
I also enjoyed the pork barbacoa ($18.95), stringy chunks of beer-marinated pork wrapped in banana leaves for roasting, which rendered the meat moist and full flavored. In one of the real attempts at fusion, it was served with something that was supposed to be an Asian barbecue sauce, although the flavors of the Orient escaped me.
Chilean sea bass enchilado ($24.95) was based on a superb hunk of fish, fresh-tasting with beautiful white flesh. Enchilado is not misspelled – it refers to a Creole style stew rather than the Mexican dish. But instead of a stew the fish was graced simply with a tomato-based sauce.
Appetizers didn’t have the same positive consistency as the entrees. I liked the oysters Samba ($7.95), three impossibly plump oysters coated with seasoned panko, Japanese style bread crumbs, deep-fried and served on the half shell with Manchego cheese and sweet plantains. It was neither Latin nor Asian but it was delicious.
Crab cigars ($8.95) were without substance. These, apparently, were meant to be like Mexican taquitos, but they were mostly wrapper with little inside.
Peruvian fried calamari ($8.95), besides having little to distinquish it from calamari from any other part of the world, was much too greasy.
Arepa ($6.95), the sweet corn cake from South America, had a small amount of shredded beef and a bit of cheese. More ingredients would have made this one a winner.
The tres leches dessert was a little too dry for a cake that is supposed to be soak in three kinds of milk. Guava cheesecake had a nice creamy sweetness. The crust on the coconut crème brulee was too thick although the custard was tasty.
Service varied greatly. On one visit a hostess snipped at me and gave me attitude, and the waiter felt the need to announce, “That looks great,” each time a plate was put on the table. But on another visit the service was prompt, sincere and unintrusive.
I still think Samba Room is one of the coolest spaces on Sand Lake Road, if not all of Orlando. And I’m glad the “new” owners are tweaking the menu and improving on the quality of the food. But I wish they would stick with the Latin theme and not try to confuse with the infusion of Asian influences.