The Sambuca Jazz Cafe chain opened its Houston outlet last October at one of downtown's nightlife revival epicenters, the arcade of the Rice Lofts. Since then, the restaurant has been crammed with wall-to-wall crowds most every weekend, an overnight sensation I'm still trying to figure out. It's partly about hip hot and partly about music, but why are so many people dining in a place that's clearly not about food?
"You'll know when you are in a Sambuca, but you'll never be in two Sambucas that are the same," co-owner Holly Forsythe told the Houston Chronicle just before the supper club's opening. The Dallas clubs in Deep Ellum and Addison and the Atlanta outpost in Buckhead may not be identical to our Houston outlet, but to paraphrase Tweety Bird, they look an awful lot alike. There's leopard, leopard everywhere, the faux-fur look Forsythe justifies as "urban jungle," not to mention duplicate dim hankie lamps and high-backed, view-blocking banquettes curled around a surprisingly small, spartan stage and the curvaceous, tipsy-looking lass silhouetted on each club's matchbooks and menu, copied straight from a trucker's mud flap.
You'll know you're in a Sambuca, all right, when you discover that the big-act cover charge is $20 plus a two-drink minimum just to stand at the bar, or that after a two-hour wait the dinner table is yours for no longer than two hours, or that the average dinner tab runs $65 plus a $2 penalty for each plate you split. This is all part of Sambuca's master plan as outlined in its press kit, in which an outlet's success is measured by the weekend wait for a seat.
I examined the Sambuca press kit for more clues. A miracle of self-promotion, it's the thickest and glossiest I've ever seen. No doubt it costs a fortune to assemble and mail: It barely fit in my mailbox. From it, I learned about the rich-and-famous lifestyles of its brother-and-sister owners, Kim and Holly Forsythe. (He, a former professional tennis player last seen on Wimbledon's court in 1986, is a "longtime friend of Martina Navratilova." She, described by The Dallas Morning News as "Dallas's ambassador to the international nightlife scene," rang in New Year's 1998 aboard a department store heir's $22 million yacht just off the coast of St. Bart's. She brought back Caribbean sand to sprinkle like pixie dust under the foundations of future Sambucas; we were unable to determine whether any found its way under the Rice's floor.)
Before I succumbed to boredom, I counted 110 pages of the press kit that are exclusively devoted to gossip of Kim's and Holly's social lives and columns of celebrity cohorts who've graced Sambuca clubs. "When are they going to get to the food?" I wondered. "Or the music?" But the drudgery of page counting gave me the statistical handle I needed to grasp the Sambuca phenomenon: I make it 70 percent boldface hype, 20 percent music and 10 percent food.
Now that we're clear on Sambuca's priorities, let's get to the food. Yes, I can confirm that you may order lunch or dinner at Sambuca. Dinner is dreadfully expensive and claustrophobically crowded, but lunch is neither so popular nor so pricey, so if you are for some reason interested in the food, go at noon. The drawback to daytime dining is that the live jazz, sultry lighting and stylish crowd aren't available to disguise what is almost entirely a disappointing menu.
I'd describe Sambuca's cuisine as mass-market Mediterranean, mounted on twin themes of couscous and garlic. There's lots and lots of couscous, ranging from the thimble-sized timbales on appetizer plates to the heaping mounds served as entrees. What a shame, then, that in such quantity Sambuca's is such soulless couscous, as bland and unimaginative as dry Cream of Wheat. Couldn't they spring for a pine nut or two? A hint of seasoning, a splash of flavorful broth, something? That parsimony is countered by over-the-top raw garlic in almost every other dish: a tongue-blistering load in the hummus, for example, and pasta dishes that'll leave you with an evening's worth of dragon's breath. First-date diners can forget about that goodnight kiss.
Of the appetizers, I liked the "Black Tigrrr Shrimp" ($9.95), a half-dozen nicely grilled jumbo shrimp bathed in a mildly red-peppered, bright orange-red harissa, a Turkish hot sauce that here was good but certainly nothing to crow about. The shrimp circled a timbaleful of the dreaded couscous, described as "herbed" but delivered plain as sawdust. I took a deep dislike to the tapas Salmagundi trio ($6.75), a plateful of unpleasant surprises: The hummus might as well have been a cupful of mashed raw garlic, the tabbouleh was tasteless, and the baba ghanoush's eggplant was bitter and slimy. The only bright spot on this plate was the perky little pita points: sharply cut triangles of very fresh pita bread, chewy and fortunately filling.
The entrees swing wildly between acceptable and abysmal. The Santorini chicken ($12.95) proved a bummer: a woefully dry, overcooked chicken breast wrapped around an enormous freight of fresh cilantro, so green and so aggressive as to overwhelm any taste of the promised feta cheese. And here, even the token squirt of lime juice in the accompanying couscous failed to revive it. The spicy beef couscous ($10.95) is a misnomer at best; the beef, although tender and sauteed in more harissa, is bland and greasy, and -- well, I'm done belaboring the poor couscous. The word "spicy," I suppose, actually refers to the whopping load of garlic in the dollop of yogurt that crowns the dish. Said to be roasted, the garlic again tastes powerfully raw; the concentrated plop atop the dish is much too strong, but there isn't enough to spread over and possibly redeem the mountain of blandness beneath it.
We had consistently better luck with seafood entrees than with beef or chicken. The Zebra Pasta ($15.95) is one of the best of the bunch, a dramatically striped black-and-white pasta folder stuffed with bits of lobster, shrimp and scallops, awash in a lobster cream sauce. Though it tastes tamer than it looks, it's blessedly lighter on garlic, and the seafood and pasta are both capably cooked. The capellini with shrimp ($15.95) is also competently prepared but suffers proportional difficulties, with far too few shrimp and sun-dried tomatoes, too little marinara and much too much angel hair pasta.
So let's be generous and say Sambuca is more about music than food. The combined Dallas/Atlanta/Houston clubs form an attractive minicircuit for traditional, swing and Latin jazz booking, drawing one national act a month; this month's calendar, for example, stars New Orleans trumpeter Terence Blanchard. "At Sambuca, the stage is the focal point of the restaurant," explains the press kit. But it isn't really, at least not in the Houston incarnation. From the main dining floor, a forest of columns and high-backed banquettes block most sight lines; the best views are from the ultrasmoky cigar loft. True, Sambuca's 9,000 square feet of seating is a nice fit for Houston's music venues; it's neither too small, like Cezanne, nor too big, like the Aerial Theater but a just-right-sized forum for the aging Chuck Mangione, say, or the between-labels Julianna Sheffield of 8-1/2 Souvenirs. But, my God, the noise; how can a dedicated music fan possibly abide the ambient din at Sambuca? The room's racket is so deafening that the melody is clearer from the sidewalk outside.
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All of which leaves us with fashion and marketing to account for Sambuca's success, sands more shifting than those of St. Bart. So one last word of warning: What you look like or, more important, what you wear, is crucial in getting a seat and service at Sambuca. One visit with a dapper silver-haired businessman in tow rated attentive service I'd describe as downright fawning. On another occasion, the company of two casually dressed college kids earned us all a markedly chillier greeting from the staff and seats in outer Siberia, where we languished, offhandedly ignored for the majority of our meal despite the plenitude of waitstaff and shortfall of afternoon customers.
The final paradox is this: If you purchase one of the club's logo-branded T-shirts ($16), sweatshirts ($24) or even top-of-the-line golf shirts ($28), you might be only grudgingly admitted to Sambuca wearing it.
Holly Forsythe is right. You'll know you're in a Sambuca. But will you know why?
Sambuca Jazz Cafe, 900 Texas, (713)224-5299.