It takes moxie to open a restaurant. In downtown Houston, where the captive noontime audience scurries home at 5 p.m. to be replaced by rushed herds of arts-goers, it takes bravery.
But to open a Brazilian rodizio restaurant there — with a time-intensive service style and an opulent destination feel — requires major courage. Perhaps a bit of cockeyed optimism, too. All of which the owners of the enormously likable new Samba Grille seem to have in ample supply.
So I told myself on a recent evening as I perched at the glamorous bar over a plate of what may just be the best empanadas in town. I could feel the edges of a long work day softening as I sipped an Argentinian red and marveled over chef Cesar Rodriguez’s fragile, crisped pastry shells and the earthy, concentrated depth of his black-bean filling. Any guy who can elevate black beans and cheese to such heights is something of a magician.
The seafood empanada had a winy, delicate note; the beef version a laid-back spiciness. When co-owner Nathan Ketcham came by and asked which was my favorite, I had to pause a second before picking the black bean. I found myself wishing that the theater- and concert-goers at the arts halls nearby knew that they could duck in to Samba Grille for these pristine turnovers, or for a simple and effective wedge salad of soft Boston lettuce and lush roasted tomatoes, set off by a Manchego-cheese cream so good I wished for a couple of tablespoons more.
As such dishes suggest, the level of cooking is what sets Samba Grille apart from its Houston rodizio churrascaria peers, with their lavish salad buffets, serve-yourself sides and gaucho-borne parades of skewered meats. Indeed, the rotisserie meats can be good to excellent here, with some hiccups, but the things that will lure me back are more specific. A shimmeringly tart, fresh gazpacho touched with sherry vinegar; a gentle green “Jade Soup” brimming with fine lump crab; a splendid lunchtime sandwich of pacanha (the restaurant’s signature, comma-shaped skewer of top sirloin), the medium-rare beef layered with Manchego cheese and chimichurri sauce on ciabatta bread. If there is a better roast-beef sandwich in the city, I haven’t found it.
It is a la carte options such as that sandwich that may carry Samba Grille while it finds an audience for its rodizio service. The menu has two sides: one with appetizers, salads, soups and entrees that can be ordered separately; the other detailing the $40 prix-fixe churrascaria service, with up to a dozen meats circulated on skewers, plus a choice of various salad, soups and sides.
The setup allows all you can eat, but instead of the cheerfully gluttonous buffets offered at other rodizio restaurants, at Samba Grille you’ll have to ask for seconds on everything but the meats. It’s more civilized and more relaxing than the all-you-can-eat free-for-alls, but the downside is that you may end up having to ask for such amenities as garlicky chimichurri sauce, which has never been brought to my table on any of my visits, and which arrived in a teeny-tiny dish that night I did ask. If I’m doing the whole beef-happy rodizio thing, with the kind of chewy little cheese rolls at which Samba Grille excels, then I would prefer free access to a bowlful of chimichurri.
To be honest, I’d prefer free access to my beloved little caramelized plantains, too. Three of them came on a rectangular plate of the vegetable sides for the rodizio service, which made me want to fight for them. One night I loved the marinated shiitake mushrooms, the crisp yuca sticks, the glazed carrots cut on the diagonal and the crunchy little emerald-green beans. Another evening, when the restaurant was much busier, the vegetables seemed a bit tired and stiff.
I particularly admired the singed twigs of asparagus, and I felt a curious attraction to the unusual coconut rice, a sumptuous and sticky affair that comes off like a savory rice pudding. Nicely sauteed spinach, black beans and rice or garlic mashed potatoes are other side options with the rodizio service.
As to the meat, the pacanha of top sirloin, rimmed by a delicious thin ribbon of fat, is as good as any in town. Double racks of tiny lamb chops were a beautiful rose color inside; and pork ribs showed extravagantly crisp, chewy textures and a snappy, salty rub. Skewered shrimp were the best and the sweetest I’ve encountered in a restaurant of this sort.
Flank steak one night was a resilient, medium-rare dream; on another, a dismally tough, well-done clunker. Huge chunks of parmesan-clad pork were dry and unyielding both times I tried them. I missed the fat little South American sausages and some of the subsidiary cuts of beef I’ve enjoyed at other rodizio places, but overall I was happy with my meal and delighted with the red wines chosen by the talented Marc Borel.
There’s a broad selection of wines by the glass, and a nitrogen-replacement system on the way that will allow for premium by-the-glass pours such as the Domaine de Terrebrune 2006 Bandol that is worth a splurge at $23 a glass. In the meantime, such bottles as the 2004 Ernesto Catena “Siesta en Tahuantinsuyu” cabernet ($64) or the rounder, juicier 2006 Alma Negra Malbec Bonarda blend are fine bets with the red meats.
On the seafood side of the a la carte menu, I was impressed by the pearly, perfectly cooked shrimp in the Rio Camarao, a dish involving a bed of coconut rice, chunks of soft yuca and a lambent wine-and-butter sauce. Hefty strips of crumbed calamari made an appealing appetizer with a spicy romesco dip. Only a lunchtime crab cake sandwich on a baguette that made the dish too difficult to bite into failed to score with me. The crab wasn’t as fresh that noon as the crab at dinner, and that bread needed a rethink.
Also in line for rethinking is a gorgeous-looking, hand-chopped steak tartare that was so hot with red chile that the flavor of the excellent raw beef involved got lost. Toned down, this dish could be a real winner.
Rarity of rodizio rarities, I was even won over by a couple of Samba Grille’s desserts. First in my affections was a suave, exotic guava cheesecake that was not too sweet for me, still having an undercurrent of cheesy savor. Then came a smooth, silky cloud of papaya cream, the classic rodizio finisher. Mocha tres leches, alas, had way too much sugar for comfort.
Yet comfort abounded in the broad, sweeping booths and serene spaces of this contemporary dining room, which has been slightly opened up and lightened from the look that prevailed at the late Vin restaurant, which was famous for its expensive buildout. I’m glad some operators worthy of this swank space have come along, and that they have ambitions to match.
Ketcham and his co-owner, Elise Erdman (she is married to the owner of Guri do Sul, the rodizio pioneer in The Woodlands), have their work cut out for them persuading special-event goers to come in for a test drive. But they’ve already put together a downtown restaurant that is good enough — dare I even say it? — to become a destination unto itself. Those folks sipping lime-muddled capirinhas and house-made sangrias on the terrace today, overlooking Wortham Plaza as our summer turns to fall, may find themselves coming back just to eat dinner. One can dream.
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