The Samba Room, SUSHISAMBA

The concept of ‘sushi’ is suitably subverted with the placement of ‘samba’ after it; the bringing of a party to something a little stiff, the funking up of something a little formal. The wording, IN CAPITALS, is a playful, clever juxtaposition and one that gave birth almost a quarter of a century ago to a two-floored restaurant in New York’s West Village. Glorified if not popularised by Samantha and her Sex and The City, SUSHISAMBA’s original location is no longer but its spirit and progeny live on. Perched on the 38th and 39th floors of Heron Tower, just down the road from Liverpool Street station, the UK’s original and most iconic SUSHISAMBA offers, for the first time in over a decade, a new space in which to eat, drink and generally act absolutely fabulously. 

Inspiration for the Samba Room design is drawn from mid-century Brazilian (well-off) residential interiors. If during the day the room’s textures reflect, then, as the dark encroaches, they glow; the walls a burnt copper, the bar a luminous lemon. It’s an intimate space; warm, cosy, and romantic. The inside is more crepuscular than the outside. It’s the kind of place Scarlett Johansson might have a reunion with Bill Murray in Lost In Translation 2. We sit at the best table in the room, one which overlooks not only the outside bar with its surreally glorious, orange-leaved tree  (a constant source of delight) but also the rarely seen curve of North London’s horizon; yes we really are that high up.

Inspired by local flavours from Japan, Brazil and Peru, the Samba Room’s cocktail list offers a detailed description of ingredients, intentions and methodology. It’s quite a read and all the drinks are so intricate and unusual, it’s hard to know where to start. The Toki Serenade is SUSHISAMBA’s most involved cocktail and it takes five days alone to ferment the homemade Umeshu plum wine. The Suntory Toki whiskey and kukicha twig liqueur also aid, apparently, the drink’s investigation into time and preservation.

A mushroom crisp lies on the glass’s rim with small, chopped seaweed on top of that. It’s a juggling act to simultaneously eat and drink and is a crazy but winning combination. It’s not as heavy as some whisky cocktails, is surprisingly light in fact, soft too. The whisky pervades with a nutty aftertaste, overrides the earthiness of the mushroom and the saltiness of the seaweed. The Brazilian Negroni is exactly how it sounds – the bar’s interpretation of the Negroni. Although vermouth was first introduced to Brazil by Italian immigrants in the 1950s, here cachaça replaces gin and instead of vermouth and Campari, Cynar aperitif and Byrrh Quinquiia do the honours. On the large ice-cube, half a cherry tomato-sized jelly replaces the orange peel for a clever, sweet twist. 

The Samba Room menu jostles with ingenious cocktails, all of which demand attention, but as well as more traditional tipples, it serves food. Described as ‘Bar Bites’, one can’t help but wonder if this might be a slightly worrying afterthought, a throw-away gentrification of the old-school potato crisp. A couple of almonds, a fling of olives, a dust board of sourdough, maybe? Thankfully, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Our Hungarian waitress, Alexandra, suggests four or five ‘bites’ should sate our noisy stomachs. She’s done a fantastic job guiding us through the cocktail menu so we take her advice and opt for the SUSHISAMBA mainstay, El Topo, to start. Definitely a lot of funkin’ going on here, and a servicing of the American attitude to sushi rather than the Japanese. A glorious, warm mess of chargrilled salmon, melted mozzarella, crispy shallots, jalapeño, spicy mayo and eel sauce combine for a smorgasbord of decadence. The mozzarella stretches the further you pull it and the first mouthful offers a warm, succulent sensation. The Neo Tokyo, if not as extravagant, is equally moreish and generous of portion; with spicy tuna inside the maki, a small layer of untouched tuna covers its top like a confident wig. Tempura flakes provide a genial crunch and the rice is moist and surprisingly light.   

The tacos, described as ‘Taquitos’, may indeed look small but are packed with an impressive punch. The shells are fresh, airy, crunchy, practically fluffy, and, rather ingeniously, are served on London bricks for a truly authentic City experience. Our Crab Taquito, which consists of two shells, is a delight. It’s all killer, no filler, comes with a smattering of avocado purée and a couple of slithers of radish. There’s an optional sauce which we don’t dip into for fear of contaminating the crab’s white meat delicacy. The Pork Belly Anticuchos are similar show-stoppers. Cooked in Butterscotch miso for a slightly caramel twist, served with Peruvian corn (larger, softer, chewier than our kernels), each skewer holds a chunky portion of pork cooked to perfection, and each mouthful is accompanied by a viscous burst of fat and a noisy crunch of belly. 

Alexandra asks if we have room for dessert. In truth, we’re not sure, the portions are way more generous than we expected. Alexandra suggests we find room so we oblige. There’s only one dessert on the menu and, frankly, who’d want another? Welcome to the Rainforest practically defies description. At first sight, especially in the dim light, it resembles a couple of stones lying amongst leaves, moss, and a large upended root, maybe even, the rough of a toad’s back. Welcome to the rainforest, indeed! In a way, it’s more fun not to know the ingredients beforehand as each mouthful offers new taste sensations. The stones, it turns out, are a mixture of strawberry mouse and vanilla ice cream encased in chocolate. The root is a darker chocolate and there’s some salted caramel ‘soil’ underneath it all. It’s exotic and imaginative and, much like the Samba Room experience as a whole, transports you out of London’s hustle and bustle, into somewhere altogether more magical. 

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