Café Sambal is a gorgeous restaurant. Intimate outdoor seating overlooking Biscayne Bay consists of minimalist furniture and clean and sparse décor. The subtle design focuses attention on the water, sky, and soaring buildings across the bay that function as the real backdrop. You immediately begin imagining romantic dates, breezy birthday dinners, and intimate conversations over lychee martinis before you've even picked up a menu.
Problem is, it seems like the Mandarin Oriental management team knows it's a gorgeous restaurant and that, by default, people will keep going no matter what.
Recently, I attended an engagement dinner there with about 20 other guests. Granted, our group was large, so there were bound to be a few hiccups in service. But waiting 20 minutes for a drink (that we had to remind the server to bring) didn't start things right. And tracking down a server to order additional drinks and bottles of wine was likewise laborious.
Food was also underwhelming. It's not that it was bad -- no dish I sampled stood out as something I would never eat again -- but it comprised ordinary, generic renditions of common pan-Asian dishes that I would expect at a lower price point. Café Sambal is billed as Mandarin Oriental's "casual" restaurant, while Azul is its fine-dining establishment. But in reality, Azul is only slightly more expensive, and portions at both are equally small. Nevertheless, the latter features a menu that is diverse and full of interesting pairings. Café Sambal seems like an afterthought, with a menu of mostly unimaginative sushi and noodle dishes that hasn't changed in years.
The best thing I sampled was a tiny slab of honey-miso-glazed sea bass ($30), though that is hardly creative, mold-breaking fare and rather an item on menus across the country. But the version here was very lightly glazed, though I don't know whether that was done on purpose. Regardless, it was the freshness of the fish -- light and buttery and blackened on top -- that provided knockout flavor.
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Noodle dishes were less impressive. Pad thai with tofu ($18), which was described on the menu as "spicy," consisted of an overcooked sop of noodles with the usual bean sprouts, carrot shreds, and crushed peanuts and very mild tamarind and fish sauce flavor. I usually like tofu in wok-noodle dishes sautéed until golden, firm, and slightly crisp on the outside. Here a softer tofu was used -- it was white upon arrival and fell apart once I stirred it into the noodles.
Shu-mai dumplings filled with seasoned pork ($11) were also not very flavorful. They came with soy sauce and a chili dipping sauce that was mild and slightly sweet. A spicy tuna roll ($11) flecked with panko was crunchy and fresh, but it wouldn't win any competitions against the versions at most of Miami's upscale Japanese eateries.
My rendezvous with Café Samba left me yearning for a second date -- a better one. It's a pretty restaurant with pretty food and pretty ambiance but little soul. It's bursting with potential for renewal, though. Add to the beautiful design a menu revamp and more vigilant management insisting on topnotch service, and it would easily be a top dining destination in Miami.