In September, chef Mark Dabundo, a long-time
Bay Ridge resident, opened Samba, a Nuevo Latino restaurant,
on Third Avenue. While Nuevo Latino cuisine - a blend of Cuban,
Mexican, Puerto Rican, Ecuadorian and Latin American cooking
- started in the 1990s and spread to several New York neighborhoods,
restaurants serving this vibrant fare in Bay Ridge are as exotic
as fondue places were to Greenwich Village in the early ’60s.
To differentiate the look of his restaurant from others in the area, Dabundo opted for a swank, South Beach-style cantina. The outside walls are smooth terracotta with a floor-to-ceiling glass entrance opening into a dark, modern bar. The dining room is a multi-level affair colored in dusty rust, beige and ivory, with big tables and back-lit palm leaves that create moody, tropical patterns about the room. It’s a sexy, seductive space.
The menu has all the Latino standards - ceviches, lots of seafood, pork and plaintains. Dabundo’s dishes are less "nuevo" than some practitioners of the cuisine. He doesn’t pull too many far-flung ingredients into one dish - a Cuban sandwich is a Cuban sandwich - with no big surprises.
There are a couple of bloopers that begin an otherwise satisfying meal. One is a poorly designed margarita. Unlike the usual drink served in a deep goblet or martini glass, this frozen margarita’s glass is tulip-shaped with a straw that renders the salt around the lip of the glass useless. The Sambapolitan, the restaurant’s signature drink, is a better choice. Icy cold and tinted a flamingo pink with blood-orange juice, the vodka, lime and Cointreau make a bracing trio.
The other not-quite-right item is the hummus starter. Why hummus, the Middle Eastern chickpea spread, in a Latin restaurant? And why such dense, under-seasoned hummus? Latin cooking, with its wonderful, bright notes, calls for a punchier introduction.
I found it with the ceviche, a dish that begins with fish or shellfish soaked in lemon, lime or orange juice until the acid in the liquid "cooks" the fish. In the shrimp and calamari version, the fish is poached gently before it’s tossed in tomato juice, seasoned with guajillo chilies, mixed with a bit of avocado (that adds creaminess to the dish) and freshened with chopped cilantro.
The malanga and crab fritters with their little cupcake shapes, tiny crowns of chipotle mayonnaise and pretty mango-and-red onion salsa, were charming to look at, but not compelling enough to eat more than one. The malanga, a tuber similar to a potato but starchier, is mixed with crabmeat and egg and then fried. The fritters needed more crab and less malanga, although the dollop of lightly spiced mayonnaise added some heat, and the salsa was delicious on its own.
The only problem with a perfectly cooked, pan-seared sea bass entree was the pool of yuca - another starchy root vegetable - that the fish sat atop. Tasting the pasty puree made me long for mashed potatoes. Touched with a fork, the bass separated into buttery layers. Dabundo naps the fish with just enough light, rich sauce with a hint of orange and saffron, to play up its subtle sweetness.
Churrasco is the famous Brazilian grilled meat orgy. There were smoky, moist chicken breast pieces on the bone; grilled skirt steak, rare as ordered, that perfumed the air with a meaty, charcoal aroma; and two over-salted sausages - a big pork sausage with fennel, and chorizo, the spicy pork sausage flavored with chilies. A small saucer of chimichurri sauce is provided to dip the meat in. Its olive oil base adds moisture to the meat and the garlic, vinegar and parsley break up all the heavy flavors with a shot of acidity and herbs.
Dabundo makes a to-die-for Cuban bread pudding. Soft, white and firm, dark raisins are suspended between the custardy layers of bread. Over the top of the warm dessert melts a big scoop of not-too-sweet dulce de leche ice cream. The dessert isn’t the lightest way to end the meal, but you’d be nuts to pass it up.
If you do opt for a lighter finale, the bowl of three sorbets - a delicate coconut, a subtle mango and a lovely, garnet-colored blood-orange with a pronounced sweet-tart flavor - are well made and refreshing.
Samba is like Nuevo Latino for beginners. The flavors are assertive without being overpowering; and the dishes are simple and easy to understand. Of course, there’s that hummus. Its really got to go.
Samba (9604 Third Ave. between 96th and 97th streets in Bay Ridge) accepts American Express, Diner’s Club, Discover, MasterCard and Visa. A three-course, prix fixe dinner is available each evening from 5 pm to 8 pm, and all day Sunday, for $25. Entrees: $12-$25. A late-night menu of light snacks is offered from 11 pm to 1 am. From 11 pm until 1 am, Thursdays through Saturdays, a DJ provides disco, reggae and Latin music for dancing. Samba is closed Mondays. For reservations, call (718) 439-0475.