Meat on swords? That’s the common refrain heard when discussing Samba Brazilian Grill. While surely I’d be remiss in not covering the style of service, there is so much more to one of Madison’s newest and brightest restaurants. When Samba opened last year to much fanfare, I must admit I was a bit reticent about dining there. After all I’m not usually one for a “dining experience”, I want good food, skillfully cooked. Thankfully in the case of Samba one is not mutually exclusive of the other.
This was my first time to a South American steak house so there was a bit of a learning curve. After we were seated our server came over and gave us the 411. We were invited to start at the first course station at any time where we could indulge in a number of salads, veggies, and spreads. Thankfully she advised us to choose carefully so we did not fill up. She further instructed us to turn over our meat pillar from red to green once we were ready for the meat course. The meat course is compiled of a number of servers, or gauchos, coming to your table with skewers or swords full of different types of meat. As long as your pillar is green, the gauchos keep coming. I’m not a big fan of theatrical dining and thankfully the delivery of the meats is not quite as dramatic as it sounds. The gauchos do have cute hats though.
Delivery methods aside, the real question is how is the food? Quick answer, quality and variety best sum it up. The first course station has a couple of forgettable green salads but it excels when you probe some of the deeper choices. The potato salad was one of the best I’ve had and the sweet potato dish was equally appealing. The Spanish cheeses were also appreciated as was the roasted garlic spread that went nicely with cheese puffed rolls on our table. I also found the roasted vegetables in crème fraiche to be a solid choice. All the cold choices rotate on a regular basis but I’m certainly encouraged that there would always be some choices of a high quality. In addition to the cold dishes there are also two sides for your meat. The first was garlic whipped mashed potatoes which were probably the most disappointing item I sampled all night. I could not detect the garlic and the potatoes were a bit lumpy for my taste. The other choice was their black beans and these were a home run. The beans were firm and full of flavor including a subtle kick at the end.
However, as good as many of the sides were, the variety and quality pale in comparison to the main courses. I must admit I was hesitant when the first gaucho strode up with his leg of lamb. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to fill up on something until I knew all the choices (usually there are around eight). In retrospect, I should have jumped on it right away. The servers do a wonderful job in portioning out small amounts of the meat so that you could go through all the choices multiple times. I was a big fan of the duck beast which was rich and tender like the finest beef. The top sirloin was heavy on the garlic and charred to perfection. I was lucky enough to get an end sliced off which was simply grilled meat at its best. The beef tenderloin was also done nicely if it a bit simpler. The chimichurri sauce available at the first course station was a nice accompaniment. The flank steak was the lone meat disappointment thanks to a flavorless marinade and the fact that it was overcooked. The jerk pork tenderloin quickly got the meal back on track as did the linguica sausages. The soft pork sausages were my partner’s favorite meat of the night. The only meat we skipped all night was the chicken as frankly it just seemed too boring. Despite the large amounts of protein we consumed, we still found room to sample the flan with berries. One of the better flans I’ve had in Madison, Samba nails the proper texture. Other deserts looked equally inviting but perhaps too heavy to follow the meal we’d just had.
Located in the Women’s Club building off of State Street, Samba creates an impression upon arrival. The rich dark tones of the restaurant are supplemented by touches of vibrant color. The open dining room and bar are not overwhelmed by noise thanks to the high ceilings despite the large space. Situated on one side of the room is the massive first course station and to the other is the constantly fired up grill, both of which are appealing focal points.
Service has to be high at a place like Samba and this crew excels. While our waitress had little to do other than pass on instructions and bring us our drinks, she did both very well as we navigated the dinner service like pros. Little touches like fresh dessert spoons and hanging our napkins on our chairs while we were at the first course station were appreciated. I also thought that it was a nice touch to have one of the grill operators stop over to inquire about which meats we’d like to try more of after our first round. Throw in an excellent host staff and a rare downtown parking lot, and you’ve got a winning experience.
Samba Brazilian Grill, 240 West Gilman Street, Madison, WI 608-257-1111