When I think of outrageous celebrations in this world, Rio’s Carnival zooms to the forefront. It’s Mardi Gras on steroids. Everything about it screams happiness, joy and excess. And at its heart is the samba — a quick-moving 2/4 dance of exuberance. A bouncing heel-toe-heel with knees bent and sexy hips-a-poppin’.
Luckily for us, a great new restaurant harnesses that kinetic energy from the Latin American diaspora and puts it on a plate. Again and again and again. We may have dodged Hurricane Isaac, but let me tell you — Hyde Park’s Samba Room has Hurricane Felicia Lacalle swirling through her kitchen and upending your taste buds.
From the fruity sangria with a touch of spice, through an endless stream of dazzling tapas, to the tres leche cake that is so good you can’t eat it fast enough, Samba Room will have your senses reeling. Every dish is balanced, but with flavors that bounce around your mouth.
I love tapas. Once you have two or three bites of any dish, the rest is repetition. So the chance to share many small plates is like being a kid in a candy store. And if I’m ricocheting from dish to dish, I like the fruit-spice combo that sangria delivers. Samba Room’s sangria does not disappoint. Both the red and white balance wine, juice, and succulent fruit, although I’d like the white’s cinnamon on the lighter side. Still, it works. If you’re more interested in wine, the price is just right; the list is overflowing with bottles in the $20s and $30s.
On the salad front, the panzanella de higos is exceptional. Small chunks of country bread soak up the juices of ripe figs and heirloom red and yellow cherry tomatoes and are tossed with crispy Serrano ham, smoky shaved Idiazabal sheep’s milk cheese from Basque country, and white truffle-balsamic glazed arugula. A simple, stunning, perfect combination.
The roster of vegetable tapas also offers many highlights. The calabacin relleno is a zucchini cup trio stuffed with ratatouille, topped with a cheesy Manchego gratin and floating in a luscious tomato coulis; or the table-silencing coles de bruselas fritas which tosses shaved, fried Brussels sprouts in a sherry vinaigrette with parmesan and crispy bacon that makes the vegetable sing a song that all will enjoy. The confit de champinones features golden al dente mushroom halves sprinkled with chives and served with rustic, crunchy grilled bread.
Try the papas bravas, Spanish-style crusty potatoes bathed in a piquant, smoked paprika aioli or the maduros — sweet plantains coated in cabra nage (creamy goat broth) with pomegranate seeds.
The protein side of the menu is also an embarrassment of riches.
The ceviche de cangrejo intertwines lump crab with soft tropical diced mango and papaya in the embrace of a habanero lime infusion that combines heat with acidity in a concoction you won’t soon forget. Don’t be afraid of the tender pulpo a la gallega, tiny grilled baby octopus with little tentacles draped over diminutive smoked paprika potatoes; it is delicious. The albondigas de cordero are juicy lamb meatballs bathed in an ultra rich sherry-foie gras cream sauce topped with a sweet pea sauté.
We established early in my tenure as critic that “fat tastes good.” So it’s no secret that I love the chicharrones glaceado con guayaba. Chef Lacalle glazes a huge unctuous slab of pork belly in a sweet guava sauce until it is glistening and deeply caramelized, and then rests it against a crisp, nutty malanga croquette spanning a crunchy jicama and chayote slaw. The juxtaposition of textures is as scrumptious as it is revelatory.
The star of the desserts is easily a “tres leche” soaked sponge cake in a smear of salted caramel topped with a light honey-white chocolate mousse plus a crunchy tuille. Unless you are dining alone, please heed my warning: do not hesitate or take your eyes off the dish. If you make this mistake, your portion will not-so-mysteriously vanish and you’ll be left holding an empty fork.
The rest of the desserts are okay, but pale by comparison. There’s a guava cream cheese bread pudding with dulce de leche gelato; an odd dense, smooth-textured rice pudding panna cotta served in triangular wedges like polenta; and a torta de chocolate ramekin of undercooked, soupy-not-molten Mexican chocolate cake that needs to be perfected. Still, the chili-laced chocolate gelato provides welcome contrast and surprise.
The multiple dining rooms are spacious, warm and inviting, as is the friendly and attentive service. Even though the restaurant opened recently, the kitchen and the wait staff are clearly in sync and the rhythm of the meal is exceptionally well paced. This is no small achievement when the table is sharing and devouring a lengthy list of small plates. At some of my recent tastings, older restaurants still can’t master the concurrent serving of two appetizers followed by two entrees.
Fortunately, the Samba Room’s flavors and rhythm are so entrancing you’ll be dancing like it’s Carnival.
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