There's a tendency to take certain liberties with unfamiliar cuisines - on the theory that on one will know better - and I think that's what's happened at Samba Room. We went there Friday night, July 11th, 2008 with modest expectations. I love Cuban food but this was Denver, after all, a place even less likely than my home, Seattle, to offer anything more authentic than a passable attempt at such a niche cuisine. I've eaten a fair amount of Cuban stuff in the past and, as a chef, have made quite a bit. This stuff was nowhere on either spectrum. I ordered crispy chicken. The only thing ""crisp"" about it was the conversation around it. The whole thing was soggy, listless and vastly under-seasoned. The ""Gringo"" rice side that came with it was some jumbled, undistinguished mess of stuff that seemed stalled out between Cajun dirty rice and Spanish rice. The chicken sauce, described as a ""lemon-caper garlic sauce"", was wimpy and passionless and was almost overpowered by the aromas coming off the rice.
My companions had a an Argentinian(?)-style skirt steak (Isn't this a ...Cuban restaurant?) with a Chimichurri sauce that tasted, basically, just like my lemon-caper garlic sauce. I suspect that, to save time, they actually ARE the same sauce, hold the capers for the Chimichurri - which is not even close to the truth for the two sauces. One of us also had the Pork Barbacoa which, to my palate, was tarted up beyond reason, with the basic cumin/ancho spices augmented with something herbal and a couple of other rather gratuitous spices that just muddied up the flavor.
Any restaurant, of course, can take whatever liberties with their recipes and Lord Knows I've played fast 'n' loose with almost every recipe ever put in front of me BUT this meal didn't seem like the product of a guiding influence concerned with expanding and illuminating the experience of Cuban food. It seemed like what I used to do when I was twenty-three and just working as a full-fledged chef for the first time: being Different for the sake of being Different. And the result was a distinctly half-baked effort.
This restaurant, I suspect, is like most of the other restaurants under the E-Brands umbrella: as much concerned with the sizzle as the steak...or in this case, with the wrapper as much as the fine Cuban cigar. The food tasted and felt mailed in; a half-effort merely intended to support a trendy young atmosphere and get by, rather than actually trying to put a great meal on the plate. And, you have to give them credit: the place was packed with exactly the sort of twenty-something, dressed-to-kill, upwardly-mobile young see-and-be-seens they've obviously built it for. So, maybe I just chalk it up to ""my bad"" for even setting foot inside a place that set off my BS detector. But, being the fan I am of Cuban food, I tried it. Lost. Expressed my disappointment to the server and maitre'd. Was offered NO compensation other than, ""Well, our other guests LOVE those dishes!"" That, in a nutshell, is the problem with places like Samba Room: when criticized, they argue..instead of doing what a truly great restaurant would do - try to make every guest leave happy.
That's what you should expect when you're touring Denver and happen upon the Samba Room. If you're about food, DON'T. If you're young and pretty and just want to find atmosphere and other Young Pretties, dive right in.
Pros: See And Be Seen (If you're into that)
Cons: FOOD. atmosphere, service