Tiradito and Turf
Take a tour through Samba Grille's elegant dining room and fiery kitchen.
Steakhouses downtown are plentiful. Houston's central business district is a natural host to these types of meat-heavy, suit-filled, high-testosterone establishments, perfect for entertaining clients or out-of-town guests. Come to Texas and get a steak, whether you visit a standard like downtown's Strip House or a churrascaria like Nelore.
Samba Grille is not one of those places. This quietly elegant South American steakhouse in downtown's Theater District is something altogether different.
This restaurant breaks the traditional steakhouse mold wide open, replacing boring standards with confident and exciting South American flavors that take their cues from the modern cuisines in Peru, Brazil, Chile and Argentina. If you order a New York strip steak, don't expect boring sides of creamed spinach and garlic mashed potatoes. Here, it's crispy yucca frites that are addictive in their unusual, starchy crunch or a deconstructed Caesar salad shining with lemon-infused croutons and a peppadew confit.
Samba takes the surf-and-turf conceit and turns it on its ear. Instead of the old standard, a crab cake comes plated in a brilliantly sweet maracuya beurre blanc next to a filet with a peppery, crusty char that gives way to a warm, pink center, melting like butter on the tongue. The creamy corn bisque is brightened with cheery tomatoes, a touch of cilantro oil and tender bites of butter-poached lobster, while an appetizer of silky beef hearts ringed with garlicky-hot ají amarillo sauce is so rich and thick it could pass for an entrée of its own.
But it wasn't always this way.
When Samba Grille first moved into the space between Mingalone and the Verizon Wireless Theater in downtown's flashy Bayou Place development in August 2010, it was a traditional rodizio steakhouse with gaucho-style meat served tableside from giant skewers.
It was very good, but nothing out of this world. I recall thinking on my very first visit that while the dining room was gorgeous and the wine list unique, Samba Grille would have to offer something else to attract Houstonians in an already meat-saturated city — one that also already has a dozen great Brazilian steakhouses to its name.
Samba Grille's owners apparently thought the same thing.
Owners Nathan Ketcham and Estella Erdmann — both industry veterans who tackled downtown after years of working in The Woodlands — took a long, hard look at what their customers were ordering and what items were selling best. That meant the increasingly popular à la carte items became the entire focus of the menu when the rodizio menu was scrapped in June 2011, although steaks were still given equal treatment. The change was smart, because the endless choices provided by rodizio service encourage people to linger — not a good fit with the theater crowd.
New à la carte items included a sunfish in Samba's bright maracuya sauce, the passion fruit puree coaxing out a sweet, buttery flavor in the delicate fish. And the restaurant started improving upon its sides: a plush, verdant jade soup that was now creamy and well-balanced while empanadas had a fine-tuned flaky crust.
As the menu moved in a new — albeit still strongly South American — direction, so did the restaurant. And over time, Samba Grille became an entirely new creature, sleek and refined, its best elements distilled into a new whole.
The restaurant added a smart, three-course "business lunch" to complement its date-night vibe in the evenings. At night, the sleek dining room and elegant black-and-red color scheme call to mind a more chic update to the traditional steakhouse aesthetic, but by day it takes on a quiet, refined feel that's ideal for a business lunch setting. The simple patio out front lends itself to a more casual lunch and offers stunning views of the Theater District skyline.
That three-course lunch is only $19, a steal for the same elegant courses you'd get at dinner in slightly larger portions. The Caesar salad is there, as is the lobster-corn bisque. But at lunch you can try a few different options, like a Peruvian rotisserie chicken with papas fritas and an avocado salad or duck fried rice served with oyster mushrooms and Brussels sprouts in a rocoto-ponzu sauce (all of this a nod to the distinct Chinese and Japanese roots in Peru's national cuisine). And what would fried rice be without egg? Here, your egg is served on top, fried to a beautiful golden yellow.
But despite these changes for the better, Samba Grille has continued to face challenges. For one thing, only two days after its doors opened, the neighboring Angelika closed. Like dominoes, many of Bayou Place's tenants followed suit. But Samba continued to adapt and to hold on, and the Sundance Theater has now moved in, along with a roster of other businesses.
Samba Grille's evolution meant it had to part ways with its initial chef — the talented Cesar Rodriguez, whose skills were more appropriate for its old rodizio menu — and find one that could continue steering the restaurant in its modern South American direction. The decision was made to promote from within, and sous chef David Guerrero took over in May 2011.
It's Guerrero who developed most of the new dishes, even when he was still the sous chef, and who's equally responsible for the transformation of the restaurant itself.
Guerrero was diagnosed with brain cancer on April 17, 2010, at the age of 27. Like most in the restaurant industry, he has no medical insurance. After suffering a stroke during the surgery to remove a six-centimeter tumor from his brain, Guerrero lost much of the abilities in the left side of his body — including his Portuguese, his ability to play the piano and his sense of taste.
He lost his job as personal chef to Tracy McGrady when the Rockets player was traded to Detroit, but found a new one at Philippe after completing his cancer treatments. He ended up at Samba Grille shortly thereafter, as sous chef to Cesar Rodriguez, whom he eventually replaced. It was an impressive rally, to say the least.
Guerrero's new dishes, like a scallop sashimi tiradito bolstered with jolts of preserved lemon and stunning purple potatoes, surprised me in their complexity. The soft-edged scallops had been cured in chicha morada, a magenta-colored drink made from maize and sweetened into a popular Peruvian beverage that tastes of warm cinnamon and musky cloves. This type of culinary evolution — from rodizio to modern marvel — made me more excited with every successive visit to Samba Grille, wondering what Guerrero would have in store next.
He also redesigned the entire dessert menu, showing far more pastry aplomb than a savory chef normally does. There are the sweet desserts, like a housemade tres leches, to suit the typical sugar-seeking palates. But there are also elegant, understated choices like a pionono-style rolled cake filled with layers of soft, barely sweetened goat cheese served alongside a creamy scoop of maple-scented lúcuma ice cream.
Yet despite Guerrero's considerable talents and impressive dishes, I am always saddened to find the restaurant underpopulated. On my last visit, I sat with a friend at the sole occupied table for nearly two hours before another was seated at close to nine o'clock. Our waiter tended to us with great interest, producing each memorable course as if he were our friendly guide on a culinary tour of South America through Guerrero's eyes, and I happily dove into a wine flight showcasing four of the reds from Samba's wine preservation system, Winemaker, that allowed me to sample some excellent bottles for only $28.
My friend and I spent the entire car ride back discussing our meal, from an expertly concocted Pisco sour before dinner, to crispy arepas towering with tender shreds of chipotle-braised pork that managed to be both delicate and substantial at the same time, to a perfectly-cooked steak.
I have great hopes that Samba Grille will continue to turn in show-stopping numbers like these night after night, as it builds an appreciative audience for Guerrero's modern South American dishes. It's a great artist who can evolve and change without sacrificing his core. At this wonderfully nontraditional steakhouse, the steaks are better than ever — and the rest of the menu is, too.
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