Say Yes to Protein at Samba Grille

I was recently invited to a media tasting at Samba Grille to sample its South American steakhouse cuisine. I wasn't sure how I would fare -- I'm more of a seafood gal than a meat-eater--but between the exquisite food and the entertaining, informative commentary of owner Nathan Ketchum, I was grinning ear to ear by the end of the meal.

The first two dishes to come out were a Pear Salad and the Gazpacho. Gazpacho is always easy to love, and Samba's version brings a spicy kick to the mix of red pepper, cucumber and avocado by way of roasted peppadew peppers. I went in for seconds of the Pear Salad, which incorporated hearts of palm along with the greens, pear slices and house-made candied corn nuts; a hint of bleu cheese provided tang, and a balsamic dressing made the whole dish sing.

Without further ado we moved right into the protein portion of the meal via the Tamarind-glazed Roasted Pork Belly, Ceviche Mixto and Crab Cakes. The ceviche was a bright mix of shrimp, calamari and fish, and came with a shot of "leche de tigre"--a side of the marinade that is traditionally done as a shot. I passed on marinade shooters, but happily devoured the seafood; the sweet plantain puree that comes with it is just enough to keep the acid in check without overpowering the delicate fish.

And then ... and then there's the pork belly. Sweet mother of piglets, there is the pork belly. Soft and fatty in the best way possible, Samba's pork belly is brined for 24 hours and then roasted for up to eight hours; the tamarind glaze is salty and sweet and evil, compelling me to take bite after bite after bite. After bite. Nathan told me that he's pretty picky about his pork, and makes sure he only buys from people who are very nice to pigs.

The crab cake was a fun departure from the usual, as Samba uses yucca as a binding agent rather than breading; the resulting crab cake is gluten-free, but more importantly very delicious and quite light compared to the standard crab cake. I don't eat gluten-free, but Samba has a lot to offer those of you who do, including yucca rolls and even a gluten-free beer: Bard's, out of Utica, New York -- I always notice Upstate NY offerings on a menu.

The end of the tasting kept the proteins rolling in: a nine-ounce fillet, the "lunch pork chop" ("The dinner pork chop is twice as big," said Nathan), and the Sweet and Spicy Scallops on black quinoa. Like the pork belly, the pork chop is also brined, and then it is smoked for six hours. It also comes with that salty-sweet tamarind glaze. The pork chop was the least successful protein for me, but only because the fillet and the scallops were so outstanding. It just wasn't the pork chop's fault.

It's not altogether surprising that I loved the scallops -- see: "seafood gal" -- but I found that the star of the meal for me was the fillet. I probably order red meat at a restaurant once a year (or less), but this fillet was so perfect I will have a hard time not ordering it every time I visit Samba in the future: soft and pink in the middle, seared and seasoned to perfection on the outside. In fact, my takeaway from the meal is how well they balance flavors and seasoning at Samba Grille.

Samba Grille offers a three-course Prix Fixe lunch menu that should put this restaurant on your "must try" list. They will also be participating in Houston Restaurant Week, another great opportunity to visit.

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Christina Uticone