I love Madison Magazine’s Restaurant Week. I take advantage of reasonably priced menus at great Madison restaurants during both the summer and winter events every year. This year during the winter week I was lucky enough to enjoy four restaurant week menus. Restaurant week starts on a Sunday, so I always take full advantage of my Sunday nights off and invite my mom. This year we went to Samba for our Sunday-night dinner!
Samba has been on my list for quite awhile, but because of the high prices (it normally costs $50+ per person to eat at Samba) I never put it at the top of the list. With almost 50% off during Restaurant Week it seemed like a good time to go! I had heard two things about Samba before going: the salad bar is amazing, and the servers (gauchos) bring skewers of meat around to the tables. Both of those things are true.
The large four-sided, three-tiered salad bar features traditional salad fixings, prepared salads, cheeses, nuts, pickled items and other great sides. I’m a huge fan of salads and love it when I can put a ton of interesting stuff on top! I mainly avoided the prepared salads in an effort to save room for the meat delivered by the gauchos. But I loaded up my plate with fresh lettuce, vegetables, pickled beets, croutons, candied nuts, cheese, olives and a great caesar dressing on both of my trips to the salad bar. Samba also offers a couple of hot options near the salad bar. The night I was there they had soup, mashed potatoes, rice and some beef roast. I didn’t go for these options, again, in an effort to save room for the skewered meat.
The meat pillar is a very powerful tool at Samba. It is a small wood pillar with green paint on one side and red paint on the other. It’s simple. When the green side is up, the gauchos will stop at your table. When the red side is up, the gauchos will not stop at your table. Mom and I decided to try everything once, but we only asked for seconds of certain skewers. The pork, chicken, lamb and sausage skewers were all fine, but not great (warning: we are not lamb people!). Because it was restaurant week, the usual eight skewers circulating the dining room was dropped down to six, they cut out two of the beef options. Usually they offer top sirloin, beef tenderloin, seasoned flank steak and beef strip loin. For Restaurant Week we got to sample the flank steak and tenderloin. The tenderloin sprinkled with sea salt was fine, but the seasoned flank steak was spectacular. It was encrusted with a great flavor and was perfectly juicy. Needless to say, we got the flank steak a couple of times and even made friends with that gaucho! At the end, it became a game to get only the gauchos with the food we wanted to stop by flipping our pillar over to green when they were close!
The hardest gaucho to flag down that night was the guy serving up the grilled pineapple. Our server was helpful in tracking down the pineapple gaucho, but he was so much in demand that both times he stopped we asked for two servings! The pineapple is super simple, but super good! It is grilled with cinnamon and sugar, and comes out juicy and warm and super tasty!
FOOD NOTES: Samba is definitely an experience. It is a huge ballroom-type dining room with a second level and low lighting. Scoping out gauchos with the stuff you want is exciting and makes the dinner fun. The salad bar is huge and impressive, but my advice it to stay away from unnecessary fillers like bread, generic pre-made salads and salad-bar hot food. I suggest saving room for the main attraction, especially if you’re paying full price. The mango chicken and parmesan encrusted pork were forgettable. The flank steak was exceptional. The grilled pineapple was simple but stellar. If I could go to Samba and get just the salad bar and grilled pineapple it would become one of my regular stops. But since that’s not an option, and the price is quite a bit higher than my normal dinner out, I probably won’t be back for a while.