Restaurants & Bars 4

SushiSamba

JeffB | Jul 28, 2003 03:03 PM

This past weekend I visited the aforementioned new Japanese/Brazilian/Peruvian restaurant, which is sort of a Cheesecake Factory aimed at the Prada devotee. The room is vast and visually stunning, though not wholly unique or innovative by Chicago standards. It looks like an expanded Nine steakhouse in red rather than blue.

The so-called "front-of-house" staff sets rather a pretentious tone that might not go over so well here. For example, guests are asked to call the restaurant by a certain time the afternoon before the reservation. And to think that I was mildly perturbed at one time by the gentle reminders called in by some high-end Chicago places. Comic relief comes at the greeting stand by the Host and Hostess, chosen no doubt because of some superficial similarities to characters from Sex in the City, and meant to define the target customer-- good looking, well dressed, (apparently) monied, but a little long-in-the-tooth-for-the-whole-gettup. We showed up some twenty minutes early for our 6:30 reservation so we could relax and have a cocktail at the bar. I like bars. Alas, when we politely checked in, the shiny-tied greetron would have none of it. He insisted, insisted, that we have a "FABULOUS" cocktail at our table which was quite ready, of course, because the dining room was empty. It was not nearly full when we left after 8, so Mr. Fabulous's fervent desire to flip our table likely went unfulfilled.

Anyway, our table was your usual ass-to-elbow affair, not uncommon here, although somewhat rarer in airplane-hangar sized restaurants than, say, a narrow storefront like Blackbird. But our servers and the bussers were lovely, informed, professional and thoughtful. I was impressed by their preparedness, especially since service often suffers in brand-new places. The last time I saw a big new restaurant open with good service like this was, maybe not surprisingly, Fogo de Chao. The "high end chain" seems to get the pieces together better than the more chef-driven places when the doors open.

The food: our server noted that in the NYC and Miami outposts, everyone sticks to the Sushi and seviches which, he said, would be a mistake here given Jason Paskewitz' talents. I agree. Although the chain brought in a ringer from the other restaurants to open the sushi bar, we found the hot foods to be much better.

We started with a couple of tasty empanadas filled with roasted corn and a cheese fondue. Simple but delicious. Next, from the cold side of the menu came a tartare of toro. To be fair, this modest thimble of fish was tasty. Also to be fair, the delicate fish had been worked into a paste, over-salted and mixed with an ingredient (anchovy? duck fat?) that imparted a flavor vaguely reminiscent of Underwood deviled ham. Ay $18, it was, on balance, a disappointment.

Next came a Japanese roll with shredded, braised short rib where the fish would be. Another simple but tasty little dish. I didn't pay attention to the price, although I know the cost of ingredients was negligible. Nice execution, though. Not sure which kitchen was responsible, though I guess it was the home team.

Then came the one truly memorable dish-- moqueca, served over Nishiki (my guess) rice in a hot stone dolsot. Very nice. Good shellfish in a savory broth with more dende oil than some uninitiated palates might consider prudent. And slimy okra, too. The whole thing was bubbling furiously and smelling terrific when it arrived. For a few short minutes, the food was the center of attention. I loved this dish, if for no other reason, because I have love experimenting with variations on the risotto/paella/bibimbop/hot pot theme.

Dessert was some kind of brownie-like thing with cajeta. Forgive me, I'm more of a cheese course guy. A nice "romeo and julieta" (cheese with guava or quince paste, maybe a firm slice of dulce de leche) would be an authentic touch.

I did not spend any time with the wine list except to order a properly dry and summery cote du rhone rose for the fish. Competent caipirinhas, also. I was disappointed that there was no selection of cachacas, piscos, or aguardientes to be had. (Just a middle-shelf brand of each for mixing.) South American beers are on the list, but not yet behind the bar. The only other major menu item missing was the entire "cold bar" selection of, e.g., oysters and clams. They are working on a huge and no-doubt glamorous deck. This is the big draw in NY and at the similar high-end concept place Asia de Cuba, at least the one at the Mondrain in LA where the resort-like Skybar shares the hotel's public spaces with the restaurant. Comparisons between the two chains being inevitable, I give the edge to Asia de Cuba, which I've tried for whatever reason in both SF and LA. Though neither is as physically "FABULOUS" as our new restaurant.

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