By David Minsky
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Tony Chi's interior design of Café Sambal is chic and sleek, with white walls, dark wood tables, and a black staircase in the center of the dining room leading up to the Mandarin Oriental hotel's more haute Azul. Sounds coldly minimalist, but seashell-embedded terrazzo floors, woven off-white rawhide chairs, wooden blinds, and pools of falling water at the base of that stairway warm the place considerably. Whether your perspective is from one of 70 indoor seats or 90 outdoors on a partially covered terrace overlooking Biscayne Bay and the downtown skyline, or whether the plate in front of you contains breakfast, lunch, or dinner, Café Sambal provides a lovely, reposeful setting.
Sambal gets its name from a piquant paste of spices used in Indonesia, Malaysia, and southern India. It can be as simple as sambal oelek, comprising chilies, palm sugar, and salt, or contain complex seasonings mixed into the oelek base. The only sambal to be sampled here is a sambal arsik, which clings to giant Indonesian-style prawns. It's really more a ginger-tumeric paste than authentic sambal, as the chilies have been omitted. It's not hot. The prawns are one of four wok-fried specialties boxed on the menu, another being soft-shell crabs sold in one-, two-, and three-pound increments. One pound works out to three fat, meaty, "Singapore"-style crabs cloaked in crunchy crust and tossed with a too-timid tomato-based chili sauce; clumps of lukewarm jasmine rice emitted no steam from a bowl on the side.
She-crab soup is supposed to be made with female crabs only; she's are sweeter than he's. Sambal's contains plump lumps of crabmeat, snippets of chive, squirts of crème fraîche, and briny little balls of salmon roe in a thin crab bisque boosted with cognac. Salmon roe also shows up atop a masterful take on crabcake, moist and subtly sweet in togarashi butter sauce (togarashi is a small, red, and fiery Japanese chili, though in this particular dish the butter cuts the heat to more bark than bite).
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The rest of the appetizers, excepting a Vietnamese spring roll, are fresh shellfish served chilled: stone crabs, oysters, Gulf shrimp, lobster, and combinations thereof. As such they're pricey, but many of the main courses are unexpectedly reasonable. Rotisserie chicken with grainy mustard sauce, wok-fried vegetables, and mashed potatoes costs $16; a six-ounce macadamia-crusted sea bass in red curry sauce is $18.50; and a succulent square of salmon, roasted and served on a cedar plank with ginger-saki glaze and port-merlot syrup, also is under $20. The sweet and pungent flavors did wonders for the ultrafresh salmon, which was further complemented by another batch of wok-fried vegetables (including mustard greens) and mashed potatoes emboldened, not overpowered, with wasabi. The upper end of the price scale, hovering around the $30 range, includes goat-cheese-crusted lamb chops with garlic-mint barbecue sauce, Maine lobster with Szechuan black bean sauce, and a surf-and-turf of filet mignon and shrimp tempura.
At $24.50, nasi goreng, the Indonesian/Malaysian fried-rice dish composed of a mélange of meat, poultry, and seafood, might also seem like a bargain. Not so. The traditional ingredients are all on hand but cooked separately from the delectably sweet fried rice. Of the surrounding components, only a chicken drumstick was imbued with flavor, while two gargantuan tiger shrimp and desiccated pieces of coconut beef stew were both bland. A few slices each of tomato and cucumber; some old, reheated plantains; Styrofoamlike pastel fish chips; and a bright purple orchid all conspired to obscure the colorlessness of the food. To be fair this was the only bungled meal we encountered.
A trio of pizzas also is offered, its inclusion on the Asian menu not making much sense to me -- until I noted a young lad delighting in a pie at the next table while his parents indulged in more sophisticated fare. Although I'm not exactly a seafood-on-pizza enthusiast, I do occasionally enjoy an anchovy or two atop a slice, which I suppose was the rationale that prompted me to order a pie with crab sausage. Turned out to be disks of what seemed more like a poached cylinder of crab "galantine" than sausage, though not unpleasant with shiitake mushrooms, caramelized onions, unheralded slices of zucchini and yellow squash, a chiffonade of basil (perhaps substituting for an unnoticeable "Asian pesto"), and plenty of cheese. The pie dough was soft and fluffy, a nice respite from the omnipresent thin crust.
A silver tray is presented with about a dozen individual tarts and cakes from which to choose, all glossy and fussily decorated. The selection includes Napoleons, eclairs, crème brélée, and other French classics along with American desserts like key lime pie prepared in classic French style. This is usually a good thing, and indeed on their own the desserts here fare well, but their effect on the preceding meals is similar to that which France had on Southeast Asia: They clash. Sambal tries to integrate matters a bit by infusing Chinese five-spice powder into a chocolate mousselike cake with cookie crust, but it still seemed a mismatched coda to light Asian cuisine. I don't know that flavored handmade truffles pair up any better, though my wife will tell you (as she told me after espying a glass case filled with them on the way in) that truffles go with anything. That's how she finished up, allowing me only teensy bites of each one -- barely enough of a mouthful to confirm her opinion that they were quite delicious.
I got to taste more of Café Sambal than those truffles, and as such can vouch with greater assurance that the food here is just as good, the ambiance more soothing, and the crisply professional service better than a good number of pricier restaurants.