As a Tampa native who has appreciated fine food for quite some time, I have forever whined and complained about our lousy restaurant offerings. However, in recent history, I have begun to sing a different tune. Incredible eateries have sprouted up in the last few years and now, just in the last few months, another handful of independent eateries have opened. Samba Room, a Spanish, Caribbean and South American themed “getaway” from the ordinary was a dear friend’s chosen birthday dinner destination and I, for one, was pretty stoked to see what this new Soho spot was all about.
Samba Room has taken the place of the old Ceviche on South Howard Avenue, only a few steps from the beautiful Bayshore Boulevard. After several months of renovation, the doors to this enticing escape were swung open a couple of weeks ago. Samba Room does exist elsewhere and has been attempted in Tampa before, but this time around would be a little different. Owner Gordon Davis (also the brain behind Boca and Cirro's) had certain freedoms to reinvent both the menu and the ambiance so that Tampa may have its own adaptation of the restaurant. Walking into this swanky retreat, I felt like I had been teleported to Brazil. The rhythm from the strings and beats from the percussion beg guests to sip on their luscious mojitos and sangrias and dance the night away. Samba Room still stands true to Ceviche’s authentic architecture and décor with dimly lit rooms throughout.
We were a dinner party of twelve and generously offered the otherwise empty quiet back room so that we may enjoy intimate conversations at a respectable voice level. Our server, though friendly and knowledgeable, seemed quite nervous and a bit disgruntled when the majority of the party insisted on separate checks versus checks split evenly all around. If only all of my friends knew what it was like to serve food for a living. I should’ve known that 2.5 hours later, the checks would be a frustration for all.
I began the evening with a Cattleya- a lovely layered martini made with Acai berry vodka, lemon, crème de violette and Cava Rosado. It was refreshing with just a hint of sweetness. I could’ve easily indulged in three of these beauties had they not been price tagged at $14 a pop. I also helped myself to sips from my friend’s Dark and Stormy and thoroughly enjoyed this rum, lime and ginger beer concoction.
The first plate promptly delivered was the Ajis shishito- a dish filled to the brim with blistered shishito peppers. Alongside came a habanero aioli that I used to generously drown the little green bites of fun. These spicy goodies were doing somersaults in my mouth with the zesty and pleasantly hot habanero aioli.
I also ordered the Almejas y chorizo- a bowl of clams and tiny chorizo bits smothered in a piquant red tomato sauce. The clams were fresh, tender and sweet, contrasting nicely with the tangy and meaty chorizo. The spicy sauce tasted as if it had been simmering for days with flavors deep and ideal for sopping up with some crusty Cuban bread.
Another shellfish dish was ordered by a fellow dinner mate who nicely offered me a bite. The Mejillones a la parilla was an expertly crafted concoction of grilled mussels in a spicy olive gremolata (much like a tapenade). These little sea suckers were timed perfectly in preparation. I have never experienced a combination like this one- for olives (God love them) usually hold no place with seafood. I was honestly astounded by the lovely friendship made between the pungent oily fruit and the mussels.
Now for a quick break from the sea and on to some belly aching “carb” cuisine. The birthday girl ordered the frituras de maiz- Cuban corn fritters with smoked jalapeño crema. The fritters were huge and sitting atop a pool of kicked up cream sauce. Golden and crispy on the exterior, these balls of deliciousness were creamy and subtly seasoned on the inside. The jalapeno crema was so yummy it would have made a delightful beverage…if that sort of thing was acceptable of course.
Another friend ordered the Tortilla Espanola- a traditional Spanish omelette made with potatoes, caramelized onions and spicy aioli. Samba Room has one serious love affair with aioli and I am not complaining. The aioli saved this otherwise uninspired and uneventful mish-mosh of potatoes.
Now onto the ceviche. Could it hold a candle to Ceviche Tapas Restaurant’s acidic fruit cooked concoctions? Hate to compare but it’s pretty difficult not to given Samba Room’s location and food focus. The first ceviche forked onto my tongue was the Ceviche de Cangrejo- a lump crab ceviche with mango, papaya and a habanero lime infusion. Wow. This was simply spectacular. The tropical fruits played a harmonic melody in my mouth while the rich and decadent lump crab still held its own, not getting lost in the mix of sweet and tangy.
The next ceviche… ahem, choked down, was brought to us by mistake as our server had misheard my friend’s order. Tiradito de Vieras is a Peruvian style ceviche made with scallop sashimi, pomegranate glaze and fresh coconut foam. Sounds like a party on your palate but instead, it was bizarre to the point of taste bud insult. The abundance of coconut foam and the overly sweet pomegranate glaze were not doing the delicate tasting and textured scallops any favors. Never again my friends.
My friend reordered the ceviche she had wanted originally and with apologies the server swiftly brought it out. Ceviche de Camaron y vieras was unusual in presentation with its black roasted puree of peppers nearly covering the shrimp and scallops that rest beneath. My friend was hesitant to dig in so I took a leap of faith on the mysterious dish for her. It was excellent! Complex flavors of roasted and raw peppers with a great tangy bite from the acidic marinade redeemed the prior inedible ceviche.
Open for not even one month, Samba Room did a stand up job with the pace of drink and dish delivery as well as the quality of cuisine. Although we had an abnormally long wait to receive our accurate checks, the service was above average in all other areas. Most of the dishes were executed wonderfully with only a couple sub-par exceptions. Ambiance is a serious focus, making any night at Samba Room a lively and fun event.