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Samba Room has style, if not taste

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[Times photo: John Pendygraft]
Hillary Meyer, left, shakes up a mojito at the Samba Room’s bar. The restaurant chatter, from tables packed close together, can be noisy, but consider it a sign of vitality.

By CHRIS SHERMAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 7, 2001


Corporate Cuban food in Tampa? The new hot spot delivers spice and glamor, though you won't find much of it on your plate.

TAMPA -- You'd think this city never met a black bean. Maybe it just didn't know beans were so sexy.

Tampa folks, foodies and smart restaurateurs from both sides of the bay now stand in line at the Samba Room in Old Hyde Park Village to get black beans in feijoa, muneta or moros y cristianos plus paella, chicken and yellow rice, and $7 Cuban sandwiches.

Those are 100-year-old news here, but the Samba Room delivers it with new-millennium glamor that makes it the hottest opening in a year of hot openings.

The tastes are familiar, but the sharp looks and soft feel of dining in a cool movie set demonstrate the triumph of the corporate concept restaurant -- and a missed opportunity for the locals.

Old Tampa cooks better black beans and had its own mambo kings when Ybor City was hot the first time, but it's been 50 years since a Latin restaurant here showed this much flash.

It took a Dallas restaurant chain group owned by a Minnesota giant (Carlson Cos. includes Radisson and TGI Fridays) to invent a "Cuban cafe and Latin bar" with modern flair. Nation's Restaurant News named it a 2001 Hot Concept last month (story, this page), and style-starved Tampa seconded it in a swoon.

The Samba Room fires its designer retro rockets to jet-set Rio and the pre-Castro Havana casinos. That's glamorous for bored Gen Y, thrilled by swing era nostalgia, rum, cigar smoke and an overheated Latin beat.

In setting, it is a triumph. Billowing scrims, sexy and sheer, are everywhere, teasingly dividing the private dining room, the lobby and a sofa-strewn lounge. A sinuous banquette, lusty paintings of Latin clubs and scattered drums add to the hot-blooded image.
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Sangria, left, and a mojito are two staples of the Samba Room’s bar. The restaurant is in Old Hyde Park Village.

The food looks great too, in tall-food tradition, and the servers look even better, photogenic young people in period fashions, '60s black Carnaby minis and go-go boots for the bar staff, '40s white jackets for the dining room, black T-shirts with way cool logos for anyone else. Yet they have the earnestness of Ben Affleck, good teamwork and keen eyes (a passing waiter saw us examine a glass for a crack and replaced it before we could ask).

The Samba Room sounds as slick as it looks. The soundtrack is a conga line of Latin music, from the bossa nova to the Buena Vista Social Club, mixed with rowdy chatter from a crowd out to have a good time at too many tables too close together. The noise level is a sign of vitality missing too often.

Consequently, critics and grumps can join in and have a good time even when the food is mediocre. That may be because the Samba Room drinks better than it eats. The bar's clean, sweet caipirinha will win you over to cachaca, the Brazilian sugar cane liquor. The luscious mango batido in a lava lamp flute has as much fun without alcohol. Mojitos with cane stirrers are great, but the mint needs to be throughly muddled. By the way, the rum shelf is shamefully shallow.

The cooking lacks the experimentation of the New World cuisine that put Miami chefs on the map (and that we tasted briefly at Mojo and Boca) and hews closer to Latin staples and fern bar standards. We've had plenty of coconut shrimp, nut-crusted mahi mahi and sesame seared tuna, but they never looked like this: a tuna log sliced on the diagonal and standing in a mound of jet black bean puree with horns of coconut and feathers of fried plantains.

Wow. Too bad the tuna is overcooked.

Appearance often outdoes taste. Best was whole-fried snapper, a stunner anywhere and bigger here thanks to a crown of plantains, with perfectly cooked white flesh under a crunchy crust. Pork tenderloin was husky but needed more spice and color than a pool of black beans and a little sweet potato hash.

The showiest dish is the $20 enorme del mar for two, a stack of bowls filled with ice and seafood. Ceviches and escabeches of tuna and avocado, sea bass and jicama and black bean and calamari turned out more mild than wild. Only a spread of shrimp with sweet, crunchy coconut hinted at what contemporary chefs can do with this Latin form. All needed more lime juice, vinegar or pepper to give them life.

A few dishes lacked both looks and taste: Paella, the usual showoff, was pallid, with only a hint of saffron. Chicken and shrimp with coconut and cashews, endorsed by a trustworthy waiter, had little flavor beyond garlic. Sea bass commanded a market price of $26 but needed much crisper grilling. Most rice was soggy and overcooked; that seasoned with sofrito or ginger is best.

Arepas, something like a savory turnover, were a heartwarming combination of cornmeal and robust ropa vieja but a pale version of the griddled cheese corncakes of Venezuela.

Cuban sandwiches (from pork to muffaletta and a shrimp BLT) are good-looking, but the turkey and Manchego I tried had only a little habanero mayo and the thinnest slice of melted cheese. "Latin chopped salad" was a refreshing bowl of watercress and other greens with chicken, avocado and smoky dressing of thick bacon and Cabrales, the famous Asturian bleu, but it was reduced to barely perceptible dots. Why have Spain's best cheeses and not let us taste them?

You can end a meal richly with a flourless cake of chocolate and ancho chile, which gives a slight cinnamon afterburn, or the green apple-banana cobbler, a brilliant combination of fruits and textures.

Despite a tally of more misses than hits, I'll return for ropa vieja in a plantain basket with raisins and olives or one of those smoked chickens I saw flying by. And I can't help myself, I love the look of it.

I'm not sure those who knew the real thing cotton to Cuba and Cuban food as a decorating theme. Maybe we could have done better, if we tried.

RESTAURANT REVIEW

Samba Room

1610 W Swann Ave., Tampa; (813) 254-5870 (plus Dallas, Houston, Naperville, Ill., Fort Lauderdale, Orlando and Miami)

Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily; bar open later

Reservations: Strongly recommended

Credit cards: Major credit cards accepted

Details: Full bar, non-smoking section, good wheelchair access

Prices: $7 to $26

Special features: Outdoor seating, private rooms, late dining

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