Monday, January 19, 2009

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.”

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