The last two days, we've been chatting with Samba Grille's new executive chef, David Guerrero, who candidly shared details about his precarious fight brain cancer and his struggle to survive after a stroke during his surgery, which left his taste buds crippled and half of his body numb. In spite of an initially gloomy prognosis, Guerrero not only survived, but worked his way up the ranks to become executive chef within a year and a half of his surgery.
Today we're tasting some of Guerrero's authentic South American cuisine, influenced by his Ecuadorian heritage and love of Peruvian food.
We started with a beautiful ceviche mixto, artfully arranged on a long plate, made of fresh corvina marinated in lime juice, calamari, baby shrimp, fresh aji pepper, aji amarillo paste, red onion slivers and toasted kernels of Peruvian corn. The traditional Peruvian preparation was fresh and slightly tart, the textures of the lime-infused seafood balanced by the crisp crunchiness of the toasted corn. "South Americans love that leche de tigre (tiger's milk) shot," the chef told me as I tentatively sipped the orange-y shot of seafood-seeped lime juice with cumin, fresh ginger, fresh aji amarillo paste. The ceviche was without a doubt authentic, but with little touches, like crispy fried grains of quinoa and the swoosh of sweet potato puree, Guerrero made it his own.
Thinly sliced rounds of an unusually purple-colored sea scallop sashimi tiradito would grab my attention next. Cured in chica morada, a Peruvian purple corn, for one day, on first look, the sliced scallop sashimi could have been mistaken for a type of potato. The marinade gave the already sweet scallop a unique but pleasing flavor, while the brilliant use of toasted rocoto, fennel, and cumin seeds gave gave the dish some crispy, yet aromatic texture. A vinaigrette with fresh rocoto paste finished off this very different, pleasing dish, and I found myself nodding and "mmm-ing" at the same time as the unusual assortment of flavors coalesced together on my palate.
Next up was my own personal request. I'd tasted it on a previous occasion and wanted to try a repeat to see if it lived up to the memory. Three glistening, generous three-to-four-inch chunks of tamarind-glazed pork belly, a bargain at just $12 a plate, instantly made my mouth water just by looking at them. The dish definitely lived up to my expectations: The sweetened, caramelized crispy skin with the fatty essence of the pork belly was just as knockout as I remembered.
After the pork belly, which was so rich and savory, the grilled octopus was the perfect foil. Baby octopus, grilled for just 30 seconds, on a bed of roasted potato and manchego, were beautiful, although I would have preferred them a bit more charred at the edges. A column of lightly fried hearts of palm filled with avocado mousse complemented the delicate flavors of this dish, which, with drizzles of Spanish chorizo oil, was on par with similar dishes I'd tried in Spain.
I simply loved the Peruvian beef skewers, or "Anticuchos," made of grilled beef heart. Something you might find on the street in Peru, the texture was a cross between Japanese Yakitori chicken hearts and a French calf's liver. The beef heart was dense, meaty, with a slight chew, the flavors of the aji panca chili paste marinade and chimichurri sauce robust and hearty. Served with a "magic green sauce" made of Peruvian black mint called huacatay, with slices of potatoes and grilled white corn, this is one of Samba's best sellers.
By the time dessert rolled around, it was close to 11 p.m., and while I wanted to try the new dessert menu, I had very little room in my stomach. So we convened in the kitchen, where we all stood around the stainless steel table and scooped bites of the delicious desserts off the plate, which I can easily proclaim as some of the best in town.
We started with a beautifully plated chocolate cake with aji mango mousse with some red granita, followed by a melt-in-your mouth cake roll with sweet goat cheese and a dulce de leche-tasting sorbet (this was the first plate to get cleaned off).
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"Alison Cook, the Houston Chronicle food critic, tweeted that it was one of the best desserts she'd ever had," Guerrero proudly asserted as we all fought over bites of this dessert. The house-made tres leches, with pineapple glaze, was also melt-in-your mouth delicious. All of the desserts were sweet but not cloyingly so, the cakes moist and smooth; I could see myself coming back for desserts alone.
Since Samba Grille is located in the Bayou Place downtown in the Theater District, if there's one uphill battle Guerrero needs to fight, it's the one to make his cuisine known in a location that's more pre-theater than dining destination. But if there's one thing I learned about Guerrero during our chat, it's that he not only has a passion for what he's doing, but he also inner strength to fight any difficult battle. His menu is good enough, even now, in its early stages, to make Samba Grille a dining destination for authentic South American cuisine. I can't wait to see what he does when he's been there for more than just a few months.