Tokyo-Rio blues

Sushi Samba attempts to combine the cuisines of Japan, Brazil and Peru but serves up a hodgepodge of tastes.

Sushi Samba 370 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Sushi Samba 370
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The first time I tried sushi was at a revolving sushi restaurant tucked behind one of Tokyo’s busiest railway stations. It was a raw Japanese experience – a simple aesthetic, plates taken from the conveyor belt and piled high to be tallied for the bill at the end of the meal; sushi chefs working frantically in the island created inside the belt, slapping every variety of fish and seafood imaginable onto a ball of round rice wrapped in seaweed; a tap serving piping hot green tea; pickled ginger and a bowl of soya.
It wasn’t love at first bite – the taste of raw fish can be overwhelming for the uninitiated – but gradually it became a romance. In two years spent in Japan, I graduated to some of the country’s finest sushi restaurants. From simple kaiten (revolving) sushi bars to upmarket break-the-bank Ginza restaurants, there is one thing in common: Good sushi is based on simple, clean, fresh tastes.
Fast forward 20 years and, together with my partner, I visited Sushi Samba in Tel Aviv’s Ramat Hahayal neighborhood, where thousands of hi-tech workers pour out of their offices in droves – not quite the Tokyo salaryman rush, but about as close as you will get to it in Israel – to dine at the dozens of restaurants on the quarter’s main drag.
Sushi Samba aims to merge the “energy and spirit” of three cultures – Japan, Brazil and Peru – following the great Japanese migration to the latter two countries at the beginning of the 20th century. That was sparked by the end of feudalism in Japan, which resulted in mass unemployment among agricultural laborers at the same time that the South American countries were experiencing a labor shortage in their coffee plantations due to the abolition of slavery. In Brazil, the Japanese were described as “insoluble,” and it was only with the rise of Japan that their status began to change and they began to integrate into Brazilian society.
History aside, the fusion of Japanese and South American cuisine is perhaps more the domain of Western restaurants such as Sushi Samba, which is part of an American chain that started out in New York, than it is the reflection of a true melting pot of cultures.
As I am a purist, Sushi Samba was going to be a hard sell for me, but both I and my partner, who has ventured neither to the Far East nor to South America, found the food to be not a merging of cultures but a hodgepodge of tastes.
We started out with cocktails. I took the Imanja (NIS 38), a cocktail of vodka, lychee liqueur, crushed lemon, mango and sour that was overly sweet, while my partner took the Spicy Ginger (NIS 40), a cocktail of sake, strawberry vodka, fresh ginger, guava and lemon juice that was totally dominated by the ginger.
For the appetizers, first out came a Yellowtail Ceviche (NIS 44) served with organic tomatoes that was fresh and tasty, although the additional spices were dominant for my taste rather than adding that little extra something that can bring a dish to life.
The Samba Pizza (NIS 40) was served on a thin tortilla base that could barely bear the weight of the salmon and mozzarella topping that was mixed with palm hearts, jalapenos and a spicy Japanese mayonnaise.
Two sushi rolls were more of a success. The Samba TLV roll – tataki tuna with a spicy chili sauce – made me do a little jig if not a full-fledged samba, while the Neo Tokyo (NIS 62) – tuna, tempura chips, spicy Japanese mayonnaise and aji panca (a Peruvian chili sauce) – combined nicely but was a little strong on the mayo.
We asked for some green tea to clear the palate, but way too much tea was piled in the pot and after a few minutes it tasted more like a bitter South American yerba matte than a gently fragranced Japanese tea.
A request from the waiter for another, lighter, pot solved the problem.
Next, we tried the vegetable tempura (NIS 38), but again the dish was lacking refinement. The vegetables were sliced too thickly, resulting in a tempura that was heavy and oily. We decided to try one more dish, a Pecania roll (NIS 52) – a roll of sirloin tartar; ginger; kanpyo (dried shavings of gourd); oshinko (a Japanese pickle); and aji amarillo mayonnaise (a Peruvian chili mayonnaise). The flavors failed to combine, and once again the ginger and mayo were overly dominant.
For desert, we had the Chocolate Jinga (NIS 38), a chocolate marquise served with caramalized bananas and vanilla ice cream. The chocolate marquise was rich in flavor and not too sweet, while the caramalized bananas were delicious, but didn’t remind me of either Tokyo or Rio.
The writer was a guest of the restaurant.
Sushi Samba
Not kosher
27 Habarzel Street Ramat Hahayal, Tel Aviv
(03) 644-4345