Apparently it's no longer enough for a restaurant to simply serve food. The growing trend among restaurateurs is to throw a full-blown fiesta, and nothing exemplifies the fashion better than Madison's own recent trifecta of big new openings: the west-side Tex Tubb's (think Latin Mardi Gras), Icon (tapas gone wild) and now the Brazilian grill-cum-performance space Samba.
Of the three new kitchens, Samba rates as the most successful party, and that's because it's supremely well-managed and well-considered. In fact, the place has defined its high concept so carefully, it's essentially review-proof. While some people may not like the concept itself, no one can really argue with the way it is realized, and everyone but the fundamentally cranky will appreciate Samba's very earnest attempt to show diners a supremely good time.
That starts with the massive second-floor dining room, which looks a little like the Titanic's dining hall. On one side of the cavernous space is the open kitchen where all that Brazilian meat gets grilled; on the other side is a big square salad bar; and in the middle is a stage for an eclectic range of performers (the night we were there, a Latin jazz band).
The space is very clearly divided because dinner here is a precisely orchestrated event. If you opt for the $33 full-blown Samba dinner (a bargain considering the sheer abundance of food), it starts with you at that big salad bar buffet, and this is where vegetarians will want to fill up.
Thankfully there is a lot to choose from: roasted zucchini, marinated artichoke hearts, shrimp alfredo, curried three-bean salad, a very good curry chicken salad with apricots, butternut squash with fennel and orange, jicama salad, piquillo peppers stuffed with goat cheese, an orzo salad tossed with olives and feta, and all the fixings for a green salad. Plus plenty more. Some of the stuff is good and some is just flavorless and filling, but the salad buffet as a whole offers a generous mix for the money. A few of those artichoke hearts and some curried chicken salad would go for about $20 at Whole Foods (but then, what wouldn't?)
You don't want to fill up at the smorgasbord, though, if you are a carnivore. Because when you're finished with that first bottomless-bowl course, you turn over a little wooden talisman on your table to the green painted rim, and that's the signal for the second smorgasbord to begin. This is the Brazilian grill part of your Samba experience, and it entails servers dressed as gauchos (pantaloons, jaunty hats, leather boots) approaching your table with long skewers of various grilled meats, usually 10-12 choices a night, in a nonstop meaty promenade.
Women, girls and confirmed bachelors - essentially most of Madison - will all appreciate the manly servers, the way tendons bulge as they slice through the tenderloins, the intimate whiff of grilled perfume as the sheets of meat drape off those long glimmering skewers onto your plate. We're talking plenty of beef here, and some of it's very good.
Oddly, the meat I liked best was a bacon-wrapped chicken medallion, but a close second was the Samba sirloin, which has a rich, almost gamey (in the good sense of the word) flavor. Also worth a slice or two were a beef tenderloin filet wrapped in bacon, a fat Argentine sausage served whole, a leg of lamb and the honey-glazed pork tenderloin, which like most of the skewered meats, wore a golden crust and offered two different tastes: the gauchos will either shave a slice off the lacquered outer skin or offer a chunk of the juicier, redder tenderloin core. Or both.
Actually, the only indifferent food was a dry pork tenderloin, a fatty rack of lamb, and the sides of beans, rice and mashed potatoes, which no one needs after that salad bar. The side that counts, though, is Samba's puffy, almost airy, Parmesan biscuits, which are serious little things. Stuff them with a juicy slice of the Samba sirloin and you have one of the best tapas in town.
All this largess is followed, fittingly, with one of the gooiest, most over-the-top and most seductive desserts I've had in 2007: an avalanche of a s'more roused by hazelnut gelato, lots of melted marshmallows, and a lap pool of chocolate sauce. Three of us couldn't finish it, and that's an homage to Samba, a restaurant that know how to throw a smart party and do justice to sheer, gorgeous excess.