Some images naturally evoke romance not the Harlequin variety, but a more decadent version made up of long, luscious nights of freedom and beauty, love and passion. For me, this fantasy is colored in a tropical patina that conjures Havana in the 1950s, something the Samba Room also effects. OK, so you're not exactly sitting oceanfront at a deco hotel sipping mojitos: You know you're in a suburban strip mall that sidles up to a sinkhole. But you don't really care because you're having fun, eating good food, and the atmosphere is convivial and very romantic.
Samba Room's change of ownership back in 2003, from Carlson Restaurant Group (TGI Fridays) to E-Brands Restaurants, has done it justice. E-Brands has a careful hand in the kitchen and a wonderful way of creating ambience.
"Would you like to sit inside," the smiley hostess asked, "or out by the lake?"
Inside was festive and enticing with loud Latin music and brightly colored Diego Rivera-esque murals. Airy white curtains, so gossamer that every draft becomes a tropical breeze, bring life to the darkest corners. But it was a beautiful night, so we chose to dine outside by the lake. We sat, sipping cocktails beneath white rattan paddle fans, and peered inside at larger parties crowded around tables, talking loudly, laughing, engaged in each others' company under russet-orange lights. This is what you call casual elegance.
We started with an order of Samba ceviche ($8.95), which mixed market-fresh fish, shrimp, red onions and colorful peppers in a lime marinade. Pleasantly tangy, the dish swelled with flavor, balancing acidity and salinity. My mouth never puckered with displeasure. The roasted hominy on the side added satisfying texture to the delicious dish.
The empanada sampler ($7.95) consisted of both sweet corn and pork varieties. Surprisingly, we liked the nontraditional sweet corn because it had fuller flavor and more filling. Both of the delicious sauces served with the empanadas were delicate fusions. Listed as "sofrito" (annatto-infused lard with vegetable garniture) and "aji amarillo" (a lemony capsicum from Latin America), they were modern streaks of emulsified flavor, distant cousins to the traditional varieties, running down an edge of the plate.
For my main course, I tried Spanish paella ($25.50). Tiny red strands of saffron spattered the mound of rice laced with calamari, shrimp, white fish, chicken and some of the biggest mussels I've ever seen. The deep, earthy, subtle perfume of saffron followed the dish out of the open kitchen into the air. Half of a Maine lobster was the crown jewel of the dish.
My partner got the pork barbacoa ($18.95), marinated and roasted in banana leaves. Unwrapping the leaves, he found a tender piece of pork nestled under a blanket of sweet, citrusy barbecue sauce.
We were intrigued by the shiitake mushrooms al ajillo ($3.95) that spectacularly showcased traditional Asian mushrooms in Latin garlic sauce.
I was about to burst when the espresso tres leches ($6) and guava cheesecake ($6) were delivered. I ate half of the excellent Kahlua-spiked tres leches before switching plates for a bite or two of the zesty cheesecake. The server brought café con leche ($4.50) to end our meal, and we sat looking over the still Florida water, slowly sipping the creamy, sweet coffee.
"We should plan a trip to Cuba," I said, as we walked under industrial fluorescents across the vast suburban parking lot.