Wookiee Hut Cuisine presents:
Sushi Samba

Gramercy Park, NY

Review by SuSu

We decided to meet here because my first partner from cooking school is from South America, and she'd heard this South American-Japanese restaurant served excellent sushi. It may sound like an odd combination to you, but the famous owner of Restaurant Nobu, Nobuyuki Matsuhisa (who you might know from Austin Powers: Goldmember as the blandly evil Mr. Robato) trained in Peru. Challenged by the non-Japanese ingredients and culture, he developed "new style" sushi -- and idea carried through by Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto, and by restaurants like Sushi Samba (located in New York, Chicago, and Miami).

It's designed with earthy yet bright colors in the decor. The ceiling features a bubbly, multi-fixture light in the center of the room, directly over the sushi bar where the chefs slice and plate their magical concoctions. It's very pretty. And the bright colors seem to expand the space. It's not huge, all banquettes. The chairs are really heavy -- hard to scooch forward to adjust the position of your chair without throwing out your back, so let the hostess or waitress help you.

The menu does attempt to fuse Brazilian, Japanese and Peruvian influences, including sashimi seviche -- a bit of an oxymoron ... raw fish that's supposed to be raw, "cooked" in citric acid and peppers. There are "makis" (rolls) served with dipping sauces that are spiced with sambal (a mayonnaise-based dipping sauce) instead of wasabi (peppers instead of horseradish), and everything is a bit spicier, sweeter, and a bit unexpected. The sashimi (raw fish) is very fresh, well-textured, and delicious. Good raw fish melts in your mouth!

It's a misconception that "sushi" means raw fish. Sushi is actually means "vinegared" or "pickled" rice; su is vinegar. So if you order sushi, it will include rice seasoned with vinegar, mirin (sweet cooking wine), sugar and salt. Usually, there is a sheet of dried, toasted laver, or seaweed, then a layer of the sushi rice, then the fillings, which can be sashimi, eggs, cooked fish, vegetables, thick sauces. So it's wholly possible -- and popular -- to order "california maki," which is filled with avocado and surimi (which is "mock crab" -- again not synthetic, but a real fish processed, cooked, pressed and colored to resemble the more expensive King Crab leg meat).

It's true that good sushi and sashimi are expensive, but the lunch specials at Sushi Samba are excellent deals. For about $20, you get a choice of a seviche platter, a sushi platter (including the samba roll, which is spiced with hot peppers and served with the aforementioned sambal), or a sashimi platter. The magicians plate the food in the Japanese traditions, using interesting ceramic and glass plates (which you can buy, by the way). However, the tables are too small for the big, showy presentations. We had to consolidate some things on the table to get enough flat surface to put the platters down. We really think they should have accounted for this when they designed the plates and tables!

There are desserts -- the Japanese tend to make ice cream out of flavorings like red bean or green tea, so a dessert of mango and green tea is not a big stretch. Their ice creams are very good, flavored with tropical and Asian flavors. You know how "fusion" is thrown around as a concept all the time, but the combinations don't always work. In the words of Jacques Pépin:
"You create a fois gras ice cream with a bed of roquefort -- wow! No one has done that before! Well, there is a good reason it hasn't been done at all."

But this place has a cultural and historical basis for their fusions -- Japanese have settled in "ghetto colonies" in Peru and Brazil. You might recall Peru's president was a man of Japanese descent named Fujimori. The Japanese preserve their mother traditions, but are of course influenced by their environment. Nobu Masahisa adapted native ingredients to his sushi chef training during his time in Peru, and created a new signature style. It's still being resisted within Japan, but outside of that country, it's making Japanese cooking more accessible and interesting. At it's core, Sushi Samba's offerings are completely Japanese, so if you don't like Japanese food, adding sambal won't make you like it more. But if you have an open mind, it's delicious and done expertly. There isn't anything on the menu that doesn't work.

In fact, the place was packed with business types, who seemed to know what they were ordering, and who seemed to enjoy it a lot. Always good news!

I'm told that Brazilians are very much into mysticism, and their native religion seems to coexist with Catholicism. Japanese also have a native religion -- Shintoism -- that coexists with the mainstream Buddhism. It might seem a lot to ask for at least four beliefs to merge together in one restaurant. This culinary genre is still growing and developing, but Sushi Samba does a good job of providing tasty Japanese fare with creative twists, even if they do choose to follow in the steps of Iron Chefs and other culinary masters.

All is not as it seems with sushi in general, and Sushi Samba in particular. Just when you think you understand the place, you go to the bathroom, and wash up at a sink that is located outside the toilet area ... it's a large, box-like wooden trough lined with black river stones. It's very country-Japanese, aesthetically pleasing, inexpensive, and elegant. So much for figuring it out!

It's a good place to go if you are cooking school classmates, since there is a lot to try and talk about. In the end, the Brazilian friend couldn't come (she was ill, and being presented with sashimi when ill might not be a great idea), but her two partners (me being one of them) had lunch together there instead. It's a warm and friendly place, and it makes talking and chatting an effortless thing. We later went for a walk to check out Rocco's Place, the setting for the reality TV series, The Restaurant. It's across the street from Bolo -- a nice neighborhood for famous restaurants. Will have to try those ... and if they aren't any good, we can always come back to Sushi Samba. Always good to have a good safety net, and Sushi Samba has a few more things we'd like to try.

Photos property of www.sushisamba.com

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