SushiSamba Dromo is the less-talked-about older sister of Sugarcane Raw Bar. The latter is currently in her prime, and has been aggressively courted by the public since a Midtown debut in January 2010. Lincoln Road mainstay Dromo gracefully ceded the spotlight but has remained quite popular. And since the arrival of new executive chef Michael Bloise (Wish, American Noodle Bar) at the end of May, SushiSamba has been turning heads once again.
The elder sibling still gets around: There are three SushiSambas in New York, two in Las Vegas, and one each in Chicago and London. She's still attractive too, hardly changing or aging at all since landing in South Beach ten years ago this month (although a total refurbishment is due come January).
The room remains, in a word, orange. It is so imbued with that hue that if Mario Batali ever removed his trademark clogs here, he'd never again find them. It's a warm, comely, stylish space, designed with a smart look and smarter flow. A dominant sushi bar occupies center stage of the 110-seater, with tables orbiting around it on two levels. A pair of energy-packed full-service bars bookends the restaurant, and overhead are overlapping round white circles of muted light that form sort of a second ceiling to keep things cozy. Even so, most diners opt for one of the 210 outdoor seats (under oversize orange umbrellas) to better take in the pedestrian parade.
Music drums to a Brazilian beat (including techno tracks from that country), but it gets played at a considerate volume during dinner hours. When a live DJ spins on Friday nights, the volume is considerably less conducive to conversation.
Bloise's presence may have perked things up, but he hasn't tinkered much with the long-underrated cuisine. Japan, Brazil and Peru are still the spheres of gastronomic import. (Chef Bloise is French/Vietnamese.) Our waiter explained how the menu works: You start at the top left and work your way down the page (at this point he was stating the obvious), but then you slide your eyes over to the bottom right page and work your way upward. The idea, he went on, is to select items from each category as you move forward, without landing on the space that says "Go directly to jail. Do not pass Go."
Seriously though, we jumped over a few sections; to do otherwise is to spend a fortune. Prices per plate aren't bad, but there are a lot of categories. Plus portions are consistent with small plate venues, meaning that meals generally range from upper moderate to expensive to much pricier if you're liquoring up.
The bill of fare begins with "aperitivos" ($4.50 to $12) such as edamame, grilled shisito peppers, miso soup, and bright, crunchy green beans cleanly fried in thin, crisp tempura coating. Black truffle aioli with a garlic kick proved to be an addictive, delectable dip.
Next up on the menu (heading downward) are small plates ($9 to $17). We were smitten with a xin-xim of rock shrimp-stuffed chicken breast dappled with coconut-cashew sauce and echoed by frisée greens with coconut shavings and honey-spiced cashews. The biggest hit at the table was bulky pan-fried gyoza bursting with braised, cinnamon-flecked oxtail.
We leapfrogged the tempura section, as we'd already had the green beans, and headed to anticuchos ($9 to $14). The skewers don't come threaded with beef hearts as in Peru, but with grilled proteins such as sea bass glazed with miso and chicken with smoked teriyaki. The latter was laden with smoke and too much saltiness. On the other hand, all anticuchos come with buttery Peruvian choclos, the big, soft, white corn kernels soaked in butter and a bit of sugar.
Seviches and tiraditos ($13 to $18) fuse all manner of flavors, from shrimp with passion fruit, cucumber and cilantro to tuna with mango, turnip, and smoked sesame soy. We went with hirame (fluke) marinated in key lime juice and olive oil, with a petite yet piquant dab of fiery rocoto chile sauce atop each slice; crackly cancha kernels (dried Peruvian corn) added some snap. This cut of fish, taken from around the fin, is delicate and light, but it tasted funny – not old, but maybe as if a strange olive oil was interfering. We couldn't figure out what was ruining it, but it was ruined.
You can always play it safer via raw bar offerings such as jumbo shrimp, littleneck clams, lobster, oysters, and king crab legs.
Samba rolls ($10 to $17) are highly creative as well. A Dromo roll wraps Maine lobster, mango, tomato, chive, and crispy rice in soy paper, with peanut curry sauce on the side. Neo Tokyo brings a spicy tuna roll with yellowfin, tempura flake, and aji panca. Yet we were disappointed with our Green Envy roll of tuna, salmon, asparagus, and aji amarillo-key lime mayonnaise. It was flavorful enough, but an advertised "wasabi pea crust" turned out to be a soft green smear of the mustard upon the rice that imparted more color than heat — and didn't provide the expected textural contrast.
I envied the person at the next table enjoying an El Topo roll, which I've sampled at Sugarcane: salmon, jalapeño, shiso leaf, fresh melted mozzarella, and crisp onion. It's so distinctive that it has a registered trademark symbol after the name.
Entrée offerings ($21 to $28) like veal osso buco, chicken teriyaki, and whole crispy red snapper are available, but my rule of thumb is to never order a large plate in a small-plate restaurant.
Possible exception: steaks, which here are split between churrasco and wagyu sections. The former forks over three meats for $39, or five for $44 (grilled hanger steak, rib eye, pork tenderloin, chorizo, and linquiça sausage). Best deal: the full-flavored picanha cut, with 14 ounces of top sirloin (with fat cap) for $26.
Wagyu A5 steaks are $18 per ounce with a four-ounce minimum (for the arithmetically challenged: that's $72). They come either ishiyaki-style, meaning cooked upon the namesake hot stone; or as toban yaki, which refers to the ceramic plate the meat gets seared upon, though it's served on a regular plate with organic mushrooms, charred green onion, and a garlic chip.
Any meat can be paired with sushi or sashimi at $10 per piece — or, for that matter, with a handful of à la carte sides such as coconut rice, purple potato mash, collard greens, and the buttery Peruvian corn that accompanies the anticuchos ($4 to $6).
The last space on the upper right-hand side of the board belongs to gunkan, a vertically presented type of nigiri sushi featuring nori wrapped around a base of rice topped by any number of foods. Here the garnishes include scallop with tobiko and jalapeño; foie gras with nashi pear and eel sauce; and wagyu beef dotted with sea salt and capped with raw quail egg yolk and crisp skinny threads of fried potato paille — a voluptuously smooth popper with mild crunch. Gunkan translates to battleship, as the dark nori packets resemble either hulks or smokestacks. (I go with the latter, but this is open to personal interpretation).
The cocktail list, as usual these days, encompasses inventive concoctions, but for $13 per (small) glass, one should be able to at least taste or feel some alcohol. A vodka-based Hakata drink of "Finlandia Grapefruit Vodka, yuzu juice, simple syrup and grenadine" tasted just like sweetened grapefruit juice; a "Kumori of nigori sake, shochu, gin, and muddled cucumber" seemed a shot of straight cucumber juice. It's one thing for the flavor of vodka to disappear, but gin? You're better off sipping the sake straight, exploring the noteworthy tequila selection, or indulging in some beer or wine. Your waiter can help with the selections, assuming you get one of the good ones on an uneven staff. It's a roll of the dice.
Suspiro Limeño is interpreted here as dulce de leche flan layered with port cake and crowned with roasted meringue ice cream and almond crumble. Other desserts such as mochi or warm chocolate banana cake will suffice, but if sharing just one, select the suspiro.Tuesday night Cosplay, a long-time Samba tradition, is when people dressed in outrageously wacky and colorful costumes act out some inner character in their head while whirling and dancing awkwardly about the room, as if on drugs. Actually, this occurs nightly here — the restaurant being located in South Beach and all — but on Tuesdays it gets synched to music.
SushiSamba is still loads of fun — and like some other pretty party types, it has more substance than meets the eye.