Monday, January 19, 2009

Doin' the SAMBA with Tiraditos

Sushi Samba Rio, Chicago

Samba. The word may define a style of Brazilian dance, but in the sushi world, it describes a restaurant chain that has successfully fused Latin flavors with Japanese cuisine.

No, really—I am talking about sashimi-based seviches, maki laced with chimichurri, and a clever integration of ingredients such as cilantro and Peruvian corn with both Anticuchos and raw fish.

It wasn’t until the summer of 2007, when I first stepped foot into Sushi Samba Rio in Chicago, that I realized this was indeed the restaurant whose New York location was mentioned in an episode of Sex and the City. Such are the perks of traveling—when you can’t find it in L.A., and you haven’t yet returned to New York, sometimes you may just stumble across what you want somewhere inbetween, say in the Windy City.

During midday, such restaurants, however popular and trendy at night, are deserted—therefore perfect for someone like myself, who is looking less for socializing and people-watching opportunities than for a selfish, savory feast for the senses (and of course, undivided waitstaff and chef attention for me, me, me).

Being that my goal is always to taste as much variety as possible in one sitting, I naturally opted for the “Assortment of 4” sashimi sampler under the heading of “tiraditos,” which is similar to seviche but with the fish sliced thin like sashimi. For about $30, my ponderous quadrisected glass tile of a plate came laden with an artistic array of raw and torched fish, all of them decorated with green garnishing.

The lemongrass juice-soaked yellowtail sashimi came dressed in slivers of jalapeno, which tasted acrid in that lemony way that you’re not sure you love—but the jalapeno more than made up for it. The Kanpachi, which is premium yellowtail, was embellished with chives and retained the strong dark pungency of black truffle oil, even as yuzu and sea salt mellowed it out. I am not a big fan of truffle oil’s funky odor or taste, so this one was perhaps my least favorite of the foursome.

The applesauce-looking muck that surrounded the tuna slices was actually mushed green apple, with bits of red jalapeno blended in (according to their website, this item now comes instead with aji amarillo, key lime and Asian pear); and the seared salmon, which used to be flavored with garlic chip, chimichurri and ginger, is now prepared with corn, cilantro and aji amarillo. The fruity one did the trick—something about the sweetness of apple and kick of jalapeno agreed with the tuna in unexpected harmony, though it shouldn’t seem surprising.

I felt rather full after this four-part dish, but I just knew I could stuff down one more thing, perhaps a sushi roll. The one named “Green Envy” piqued my interest. What exactly was wasabi pea crust? I decided I had to know. And as it turned out, it was a roll that wore crushed bits of dehydrated, wasabi-seasoned peas (a staple snack in Asian supermarkets), tingeing the rice a slight greenish hue. Tuna, salmon and asparagus sat inside, ready to be dipped into the spicy sauce fancily described as “aji amarillo-key lime mayo.”

Samba Dromo, Maya & Rainbow Dragon Rolls

Sushi Samba Dromo in South Beach, Florida

In Florida’s famous South Beach district, Sushi Samba Dromo on Lincoln Road holds down the forefront on the area’s sushi scene. It’s been a year since my visit to the Sunshine State, but I still laud the Samba Dromo Roll, which combines Maine lobster with mango, tomato, chives, crispy rice, and red curry on soy paper. The flavors are pure tropical-ness, very light and sweet and airy, finished with the one seemingly off-ingredient of red curry—although the tanginess of this addition balances out the lightness of the others just right.

This time, I selected a single order of the sashimi, as opposed to the assortment of four that was also available. Although the tuna with grapefruit juice, red jalapeno and almond beckoned, and the jumbo shrimp with passionfruit, cucumber and cilantro sounded refreshing, I was ultimately seduced by the king crab with guava ponzu, tobiko and spiced panko for $15. Ordering the single serving also meant I would be getting a larger portion that I would have received on the sample platter, but this time I just couldn’t stomach that much (don’t be disappointed; it simply meant I had already eaten numerous times earlier that day).

The king crab, although satisfying and delicious, didn’t look pretty—it was literally covered in the prickly yellow batter-dust known as panko, interspersed with bits of tobiko here and there so that you had to move it all aside to unearth the meaty crustacean beneath. But the flavor did not disappoint, although perhaps it could have been presented better.

On a second visit to this restaurant the next day with a friend, I felt so torn: while I wanted her to experience the delectable Samba Dromo Roll, and I wouldn’t have minded a repeat of perfection myself, I also felt the urge to order something new—but which surely couldn’t be as good as the tried-and-true lobster maki.

I decided to take a chance and order the Rainbow Dragon and Maya rolls. While the former may sound familiar because it combines the names of two popular sushi rolls, Samba’s Rainbow Dragon actually introduces red bell pepper and mango to otherwise ordinary ingredients: eel, cucumber and avocado (it really makes you wonder why most sushi bars don’t get more creative). Doing this actually Latinizes the roll, giving it a more Brazilian flavor (in Rio de Janeiro, mango is actually used quite often, substituting the cucumber in their California rolls).

In the Maya, shrimp and avocado are definitely Latinized with the tomato and green tomatillo salsa—I have seen tomatoes thrown into spicy tuna salads, or added on top of spicy tuna rolls drenched with spicy mayo, but I’ve never seen the use of tomatillo salsa anywhere but here. And although these rolls win my vote, I can see why the Samba Dromo Roll is the house favorite.

The Pacific, BoBo Brazil, & El Topo Rolls

Sushi Samba Strip, Las Vegas

I recently decided to stop at Las Vegas’ Sushi Samba Strip (located in The Shoppes at The Palazzo) for a final meal before hitting the road for the long drive back to L.A. Just like I discovered at Sushi Samba Dromo in Miami, the menu slightly varied from those of their sister restaurants in other states. In Las Vegas, for example, the Samba Dromo Roll was called the Samba Strip Roll—but spicy sesame crema replaced the red curry, and mango was missing in this version. And in the tiraditos here, Granny Smith apple, serrano and lime did the flavoring of the tuna, while orange and mustard miso enhanced the salmon.

Latin touches pervade the ambience, which pulsates with South American beats and vibrant colors. Even the glass case which displays the raw fish is bordered with fresh cilantro, not lettuce or fake plastic grass like at chintzy sushi dives.

As usual, I craved the rolls. My first choice—the Pacific, with king crab, avocado, and Asian pear with wasabi-avocado crema—was good but actually paled in comparison to my second selection, a roll known as BoBo Brazil, which has seared kobe beef, avocado, sprouts, mint leaves, red onions, chimichurri, and farofa, a Brazilian spice made of toasted manioc flour. The unraveling green halos on top looked to be jalapeno slices or green onions at first—until the waitress explained it was chopped shishitos, which are mini Japanese green peppers. Being a tad bitter in taste, shishitos balanced the sweet kobe beef just right. In fact, there were so many different flavors, I hardly noticed the mint leaves inside, an indication that once again, all the flavors have fused without discord.

The waitress sang praises of her favorite, the El Topo, which in the menu is not described as a baked roll, merely reads salmon, jalapeno, shiso leaf, fresh melted mozzarella and crispy onion. I was about to burst, but I rationalized, One for the road…it’s a long drive (further proof of my addiction). It turns out, the BoBo Brazil still beat them all in the end. Although too pizza-like, with the crispy onions being dry, fried wonton noodle-like things on top, the El Topo still isn’t bad—the spiciness makes you decide you love it after all.

Presently, Sushi Samba has two locations in New York, and one in Miami, Chicago and Las Vegas. Visit their website at

Monday, January 5, 2009

The Return of the Spicy Octopus Salad

The Case of the Missing Tako Salad

When the best item on a menu goes m.i.a., I withhold my patronage of that restaurant. It’s only fair. And if I do continue to call and ask about the possible return of the banished dish, that means it truly made a lasting impression on me.

This was the case with the Tako Salad of Shogun in Pasadena. For some reason, one day I was told they didn't have it. I turned around and walked out. Follow-up calls proved to be in vain. Then, almost two years later, I called again and the salad miraculously resurfaced.

I recently indulged in the predominately red mixture of cucumbers slices, sprouts, sesame seeds and tentacles that burned my mouth in that welcoming, familiar way, and I relished the withering zest—the Tako Salad does not kid around. Watching the chefs toss it all in a bowl, I learn the dressing consists of the fiery Sri Racha hot sauce, chili oil, Ponzu sauce, and sometimes a squirt of spicy mayonnaise. This healthy but hot salad will wreak damage to your mouth, not your wallet: $6.50 is all it costs.

One time, when I ordered this at the sushi bar, some neophyte sitting next to me automatically asked, “Taco salad? They have that here?”

I had to explain that tako means octopus in Japanese, to which he uttered “Ohhh…,” that self-conscious groan of enlightenment. But perhaps I should have told him, “Yeah, it’s my favorite thing here, I really love the sour cream and black olives on top….”

I must admit: there is a big part of me that loathes Pasadena. I think it has always tried way too hard to imitate the uppity poshness of West L.A., but as MOST of its restaurants will reveal, it will never come close to the hallowed Sushi Row that is Ventura Boulevard, or the upscale dining monuments in West Hollywood. The fact that Sushi Roku had to sprout a location in Pasadena is annoying enough (there is also a Sushi Roku in Hollywood, but I am not a big fan of their food at all at either location; Katana in Hollywood, of the same owners, is also not too impressive on the sushi, although it has an excellent robata bar). Wokcano does not even deserve a mention in this blog, but for the sake of comparison I conjure it out of the abyss where it belongs: both locations in Pasadena and West L.A. should be shut down—the quality is terrible and the only reason the high prices are even remotely justifiable is because they close in the wee hours of the morning, but this also means you can look forward to a loud, buffoonish crowd and exhausted chefs that don’t want to take your order.

White Russian, Spicy Lobster, Kamikaze Rolls

Shogun Holds Its Own

So in this overly family-oriented, big mecca wannabe of a town, amid big-name giants such as Kabuki and Roy’s, Shogun holds its own fairly well, featuring a rather neat sushi bar that often has fresh king crab and regularly showcases fly-by-night items such as the White Russian Roll and the Spicy Garlic Shrimp Roll (this one has apparently been forgotten about, as some of the newer chefs have no idea what you’re talking about when you request this item that you saw three years ago on their dry-erase board). But the perennial ones listed on their sushi roll menu are just as good, items like the Spicy Lobster or Kamikaze Rolls.

I asked for an explanation as to why they had ever taken away the Tako Salad. “We had it, but we just didn’t have it in stock,” came the reply over the phone.

It must be a Pasadena thing.

In the tradition of the Benihana chain, Shogun is part sushi bar, part Teppan grill restaurant. The chefs here can be seen putting on a show with their knives and spatulas, playing with fire and food, proving restaurant truly is theater.

Shogun is located at 470 N. Halstead Street near Foothill Blvd., and can be reached at 626-351-8945.