Restaurant Reviews

Cha-Cha Chow

Bid farewell to American fusion cuisine, that tired trend, as you know it. Say hello to Latin fusion cuisine because, well, you're going to get to know it.

The place where you'll begin to get acquainted, folks, is the Samba Room on East Las Olas Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale. The third location of a burgeoning chain owned by Carlson Restaurants Worldwide, which also runs the Samba's sister organization T.G.I. Friday's, this five-week-old eatery is already proving that pan-Latin fare may be more tempting than pan-American. Check it out: On a recent Saturday night, the new restaurant was boasting an hour's wait, while Dancing Bear across the street, where acclaimed New American chef David Sloane does his intriguing comfort-food stuff, was handling the overflow.

Hmm. It's possible that foot traffic is being magnetized by the couches, armchairs, and coffee tables on Samba's sidewalk, where revelers lounge with mojitos -- Cuban rum cocktails -- in their hands. More likely, however, the booming business at Samba Room has resulted from Carlson's market research. The company opened the first and second eateries in Dallas and Chicago respectively; both cities have large Latino communities. South Florida was a natural third, not to mention fourth and fifth. The restaurant's next location will be in South Beach, and Samba number five is planned for West Palm Beach. Soon everyone in the tricounty area can have a little plantain in his life, a little bit of pollo by his side….

That is, of course, if Samba gets its conga line together. Given its parentage I wouldn't have expected the restaurant to be so disorganized that it didn't hire enough staff to deal with a Saturday-night crowd. On a recent weekend evening, we decided to give up trying for a place in the dining room, despite the appeal of flowing white linen draperies, a slate floor, and an array of woods so beautifully hued that L'Oréal could model a hair-product line after them. The wait for the 200-seat restaurant had jumped to two hours. We were seated at an outdoor bar table only moments before the hosts were instructed to stop taking names altogether, because the kitchen was so backed up that the cooks (what few there were, our waitress confided) couldn't handle the food orders.

It was pretty apparent from the get-go that chaos was reigning. Here's a time line to illustrate: Two out of four of our appetizers were brought to our table; 15 minutes later, the entire order of four appetizers was served; 15 minutes after that, the two missing appetizers from the first attempt arrived. We saw one particular starter -- deep-fried calamari -- a total of three times, since someone else's order of squid was literally mixed up with a side dish of onion rings our table ordered later in the meal. With each delivery we would request plates so we could share the food, and after hurried promises the server would scuttle off and fail to return. Fortunately a wait station was situated right next to us, so we helped ourselves to a variety of things, from silverware to extra napkins. The only item we couldn't serve ourselves was water, which appeared toward the end of the meal after several increasingly urgent requests.

In short the place was a disaster. But to give credit, our waitress was so cool-headed and collected that overall, despite the numerous glitches, our meal was actually enjoyable. And the Latin fusion fare, chock full of nuances, showed considerable inspiration. For instance the arepas starter -- griddled corn cakes sandwiched with queso blanco and tender shredded beef -- was highlighted with an unexpected corn salsa. The corn had been cut straight from the cob, and the salsa itself is prepared daily rather than stored overnight in the fridge, which would leach the corn of its sweetness. Bravo -- this was fresh and delicious.

Although the dishes are pan-Latin, an occasional Asian twist appears. For example the seared rare tuna appetizer had been coated in sesame seeds, and not even the presence of black-bean purée topped with juicy hunks of papaya could persuade my taste buds that it was Latin. It wasn't so difficult to win me over in terms of its merit. The tuna was meaty and butter-soft, ruby red to the papaya's brilliant orange -- a veritable rainbow of flavors.

On the other hand, the point of Latin origin for most of the dishes is easily discernable. Clearly the "grilled Chilean sea bass" main course stemmed from -- you got it -- Chile. The fish was inches thick and fell apart in wide flakes at the touch of a fork, though it was so bland that not even a tomato mojo could redeem it. The roast-chicken entrée, rubbed with recado, a mixed-spice paste of Yucatecan descent, had a fabulous backyard-grill flair. Moist and slick with juice, the half chicken had been spiced with annatto and fired until the skin was crisp. A massive side dish of mashed boniatos, or white sweet potatoes, had been spiked with rum and vanilla and was a terrific variation on the typical starch. And the ropa vieja sandwich, a crunchy Cuban bread spread with stewed shredded beef, was obviously from Gloria Estefan's homeland, and the flavor was enough to make us want to "do that conga." Our only objection to this version of a sloppy joe was that it wasn't quite sloppy enough.

The provenance of some of the other dishes may seem less clear, making diners wonder how "Latin" the food really is. Samba Room, itself named after a Brazilian dance, has appropriated a number of Brazilian recipes, including xinxim, a stew comprising sautéed shrimp and chicken in coconut broth that has been thickened with crushed peanuts. This is one of my all-time favorite dishes, and Samba Room does an admirable if slightly salty job with it, ladling the plump shrimp and succulent, boneless chicken pieces over rice.

Anyone familiar with Brazil's colonial history knows that the Portuguese settled the country and then brought in African slaves. Xinxim offers a fine example of how those two cultures mingled to create an independent cuisine that doesn't feature many dishes of Spanish descent. However, no one would argue that Brazil is not Latin American, and my Brazilian friends assure me that, although they don't consider themselves Hispanic, they do call themselves Latin. So there's the distinction. Regardless, I'm not sure why the aforementioned fried-calamari appetizer, which was some of the tastiest squid I've had in a long time, is being billed as Brazilian. I would understand if the calamari were tenderized in coconut milk -- not buttermilk, as our server told us. In fact squid, while common in Spain, is so uncommon in South America that not a single cookbook I consulted, ranging from The Book of Latin American Cooking to Tasting Brazil, had a recipe for it.

I have a more decisive quibble with the jerk chicken wings appetizer, the "banana spliff" sundae, and the "Rasta rings" (onion rings) side dish. I don't care how far you stretch the definition: Jamaican is not Latin, it's Caribbean. Fixing the gaffe would be as simple as renaming the last two items, but jerk chicken wings are thoroughly Jamaican under any title. As for the onions, they were good if a little greasy. Their appearance at our table mixed with squid rings, however, was a clear sign that too many dishes were being deep-fried together. Someone's not paying attention to details.

Latin fusion may be less welcome when it comes to sweets. I had no desire to sample a chocolate-ancho chile flourless cake; no matter how fashionable this trend is, I think chile-and-chocolate combinations should be reserved for mole sauces. And coconut crème brûlée sounded as if the grainy coconut would ruin the texture of the custard. We did extend our already excessively lengthy meal with a green apple-banana cobbler that was both tangy and mellow. It had a crunchy top and was served warm enough to melt the scoop of coconut ice cream that crowned it.

One of the best reasons to visit Samba Room, aside from some fairly yummy main courses, is for its cocktails. Cuba libres, mango daquiris, and caipirinhas (Brazilian mojitos), among others, are expertly mixed and garnished with pieces of sugar cane. Then if the restaurant is too busy to seat you, you can drink your dinner instead, reclining on one of the sidewalk sofas. While you lounge the staff will eventually clear the room and ready it for Latin dancing, which happens at midnight on Fridays and Saturdays. By that time the only problem you might have is your footwork, because that's when the Samba Room really lives up to its name.

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Jen Karetnick is an award-winning dining critic, food-travel writer, and author of the books Ice Cube Tray Recipes, Mango, and The 500 Hidden Secrets of Miami.
Contact: Jen Karetnick