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updated: 3/22/2012 6:30 AM

Sake & Samba satisfies with succulent steaks, salads

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  • Gaucho Paulo Derkascz presents garlic steak at Sake & Samba Brazilian Churrascaria in Vernon Hills.

       Gaucho Paulo Derkascz presents garlic steak at Sake & Samba Brazilian Churrascaria in Vernon Hills.
    Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

  • Diners can choose from a variety of sakes at the aptly named Sake & Samba Brazilian Churrascaria in Vernon Hills.

       Diners can choose from a variety of sakes at the aptly named Sake & Samba Brazilian Churrascaria in Vernon Hills.
    Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

  • Chef Angelica Russomano sets up the salad bar that includes fresh sushi at Sake & Samba Brazilian Churrascaria in Vernon Hills.

       Chef Angelica Russomano sets up the salad bar that includes fresh sushi at Sake & Samba Brazilian Churrascaria in Vernon Hills.
    Photos by Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

  • Gauchos slice top sirloin, or alcatra, and other meats tableside at Sake & Samba Brazilian Churrascaria.

       Gauchos slice top sirloin, or alcatra, and other meats tableside at Sake & Samba Brazilian Churrascaria.
    Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

  • Floor manager Edgar Hernandez slices some flank steak from gaucho Paulo Derkascz at Sake & Samba in Vernon Hills.

       Floor manager Edgar Hernandez slices some flank steak from gaucho Paulo Derkascz at Sake & Samba in Vernon Hills.
    Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

  • Sake & Samba Brazilian Churrascaria calls Vernon Hills home.

       Sake & Samba Brazilian Churrascaria calls Vernon Hills home.
    photos by Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

 
By Carolyn Walkup

Meat lovers will be in their element at Sake & Samba Brazilian Churrascaria, where unlimited servings of grilled succulent meats come to the table on demand.

Centered around barbecued meats, the concept is loosely based on southern Brazil's ancient cattle raising tradition, when cowboys, or gauchos, working in the mountains would barbecue beef and other meats on skewers over an open fire. This style of cooking was refined in Brazilian restaurants and has since been exported to many other countries.

Opened last year, Sake & Samba is much more about the "samba" than the "sake." A choice or two of sushi on the salad bar is about the only culinary nod to Japanese cuisine we found. Other than that, the full bar selection includes an array sake and Japanese beers, plus several Brazilian cocktails. The wine list, beginning with reds, carries many South American vintages, such as the good Argentine Malbec we ordered for $8 a glass.

The fixed price menu for the meat and salad bar is a good value (currently $19.95 Tuesday through Thursday; $24.95 Friday and Saturday) even when you factor in beverages, dessert, tax and tip.

Interior designers did a commendable job of transforming this typical strip mall storefront into a warm restaurant with maple floors, dark wood chairs and mildly abstract red-toned artwork on the walls. Pendant lighting and recorded Brazilian music at an acceptable volume further set a pleasant mood.

Our personable waiter, Omar, took our drink order and invited us to help ourselves at the salad bar. Arranged on flat L-shaped surfaces along the back wall, this salad bar is less impressive than others at some of the churrascarias I've experienced in Chicago. I recall showier and more varied selections on stations centered in the dining room that allow more attractive vertical displays.

At Sake & Samba, I recommend building your own tossed salad with crisp romaine lettuce, olives, mini balls of buffalo mozzarella, roasted red peppers and sun-dried tomatoes. Skip the flavorless fresh tomato slices and green beans until they come into season locally. A wide assortment of labeled salad dressings is offered. There also are a few prepared salads, mostly made with mayo. The one sushi roll, made with crabmeat-look-alike surimi, tasted fine, but I would have preferred additional choices.

Next we helped ourselves to a few of the hot side dishes on the steam table to accompany the meats that we knew the gaucho-uniformed waiters would be delivering on long skewers as soon as we beckoned them with the green side of our dual-colored wooden markers. The sides consisted of white rice to be topped with small portions of a variety of stews: black bean with bacon; lentil and mushroom. All were mildly seasoned.

Omar also brought us a generous mound of buttery mashed potatoes and two sautéed caramelized plantains, the latter intended as palate cleansers between meats. A basket of warm miniature cheese rolls also provided a savory accompaniment to the proteins.

Now we were ready for some meat. On weeknights, the restaurant offers about 10 choices, while on weekends some additional ones, usually filet mignon wrapped in bacon and barbecued ribs, join the rotation. We found the number of weeknight choices more than adequate.

The doneness of the meat can vary on each skewer, so preferences from rare to medium well can be accommodated. We asked for medium-rare on the beef choices, but there was some variation. The first meat to arrive, prime sirloin, was too rare, as well as oversalted.

Later, we selected other steak cuts -- bottom sirloin, top sirloin and flank steak -- that were more to our medium-rare liking and better seasoned. They had a nice char and were very flavorful. On some of the thinly sliced portions we used our small tongs to transfer our slice to our plate -- a fun bit of audience participation.

Although guests don't have a choice of the order in which the meats come around to their tables, it doesn't really matter. We had to remind ourselves to turn our markers to the red side to avoid being overloaded with too many meats at once.

The non-beef meats were also flavorful, our favorites being the leg of lamb with a hint of mint, nicely charred mini chicken leg and Linguica, a popular well-seasoned Brazilian-style cured pork sausage. A pork tenderloin topped with parmesan was a tad overcooked and the chicken breast wrapped in bacon was somewhat smoky for our tastes.

Grilled pineapple slices served as another palate cleanser was a welcome touch. We were quite full by this time and had no room left for dessert, which is not included in the fixed price. Only a few selections -- papaya cream and flan -- continue the Latin American theme.

We left feeling pleasantly full and not overly stuffed, which is a hazard of all-you-can-eat concepts. The host held the door open and thanked us for coming, an always-appreciated hospitable gesture and one that helped ensure we will return again.

Reviews are based on one anonymous visit. The Daily Herald does not publish reviews of restaurants it cannot recommend.

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