Romantic lighting, live jazz, cozy seats, adult food: This is my kind of club Med, an eatertainment concept I can live with...maybe even grow to love.
The four-month-old Sambuca Jazz Café features Mediterranean-themed fare and jazz, jazz, jazz. This is the fifth such supper club, all named for the Italian anise-flavored liqueur, in a decade-old Dallas-based operation -- two are located there; the others are in Houston and Atlanta. But while Sambuca is a link in a chain, the people who sing here aren't doing it in my ear, the waitresses aren't dressed diner-style, and the food is quite tasty and well-prepared.
The decor is a groovy change from the Asian-edgy look of the previous tenant (Hi Ricky, which lasted one whole month); the dining room, in which the main stage commands most of the attention, is all about faux-leopard-skin upholstery and dark lighting; pillowed ceilings and wood accents accessorize the adjoining Moroccan room.
Sambuca Jazz Caf, 1320 15th Street, 303-629-5299. Hours: 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m., 6:30-11 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m., 6 p.m.- 1 a.m. Friday, Saturday; 6:30-11 p.m. Sunday
The latter is the place to go if your interest in music is secondary to your hunger. Although the sounds of jazz permeate the entire club, you can actually converse in the Moroccan room. But if music, which Sambuca offers seven nights a week, is all-important, then the stage room is it. All of the two-tops face the stage; larger parties sit in booths lining the sides. There's really not a bad seat in the house, unless whoever's playing is so popular that the bar crowd jams into the doorway to get a look. The management tries to keep such crushes to a minimum but is not always successful -- particularly when acts like Harry Connick Jr. sell out the space well in advance. To cut back on crowding, the menu warns: "Two hour max on tables."
But it's hard to stick to that schedule when the kitchen is running way behind. My first meal there stretched over three hours, but it was all so entertaining that we didn't mind the lengthy waits. At one point, one of the servers, a smallish guy, grew so weary of carrying an enormous tray laden with food (none of it destined for us) that he actually rested it on my dinner date's head for a minute. My companion's eyebrows shot up, silently asking the obvious question: "What should I do?" The obvious answer: "Don't move." It quickly dawned on the server that normally that particular part of the dining room contains nothing on which you can rest a tray, and he sheepishly apologized, resisting the urge to refluff my friend's hair. And eventually we even found it amusing that both our server and the manager had taken to hiding in the kitchen in order to avoid dealing with us and the other tables that were starting to wonder what the heck was going on. But the table behind us got a few drinks out of the delay deal, we were treated to dessert, and I think everyone went away happy, including the well-liked broad who was singing. Her name escapes me -- but, hey, I'm not the jazz critic.
I did take note of the food, though, which often was above-average. It's the work of Lee Fields, who came from Sambuca's Houston store; before that, Fields spent most of his career doing the country-club and hotel thing, then had an epiphany in France. He spent two years working with cooking mentor Michelle Cleche, who convinced Fields to graduate from Le Cordon Bleu. From there, Fields went to Le Totof in New York before Sambuca snatched him away to humid Houston, where he also acquired an associate's degree in culinary arts at the Art Institute in that city. And then, as anyone with half a brain would do, Fields jumped at the chance to come to Denver.
With all of that in his background, Fields has figured out a few things about Mediterranean cooking. He's at his very best with French fare, such as the escargot en croûte ($9.95): succulent snails (when they're cooked well, are there any other kind?) tucked into flaky pastry and smothered with a decadent tomato-garlic cream sauce. Another starter, the salmon carpaccio ($8.75), was just as exquisite, with the excellent-quality salmon wearing a thin lime sauce sparked by shallots. Also heavenly was the soup of the day, a pumpkin bisque ($4.25) that seemed to contain not only some other kind of squash, but also a touch of coconut milk. (The server said the kitchen flatly denied that was an ingredient, but it's hard for anything else to taste like coconut milk.) We paired the soup with the Gorgonzola salad ($7.95), a big bowl full of mixed greens with lots of cheese and some caramelized walnuts that went beautifully with the sharp Gorg.
By the time our entrees arrived, we'd pretty much worked our way through a bottle of champagne, an impressively nutty and fruity La Demoiselle ($42); if you can find it around town, it's worth checking out for New Year's. So are Sambuca's checkerboard ravioli ($13.95), delicious packets filled with creamy ricotta and ground beef and topped with a mildly spicy marinara spiked with cream. The crab cakes ($16.95) weren't bad, but they were smooshy and had been messed with too much. The wasabi tartar sauce on the side, however, was good enough to stand on its own.
When the server suggested some complimentary finales to make up for our wait, we felt compelled to ask if we'd have to sit around another thirty minutes before the desserts showed up. He promised us they'd be quick, and delivered in record time an excellent crème brûlée (usually $5.95) and an even better rich and gooey tiramisu ($5.95), which was served in a coffee cup.
When we returned for a second visit, we theorized that a few shots of the restaurant's namesake beverage would help prepare us for whatever the rest of the evening had in store. So we quaffed some Romana, some Strega and some Opal Nera (each $5.25), then tucked into our appetizers. The black tiger shrimp ($9.95) had been covered with harissa (pronounced ha-reesa, it's a Tunisian sauce made from dried red chiles, garlic and olive oil), then grilled until they could stand up to the fiery sauce; a side of couscous provided a good way to cool off. A sampler of tapas ($7.75) brought pita points and a trio of dips -- tabouleh, hummus and baba ghanouj. The garlic-heavy baba ghanouj was particularly impressive; it wasn't bitter like so many eggplant concoctions, and even had a welcome creaminess.
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The menu -- which is almost identical to those of the other Sambucas, with a few regional exceptions, such as fewer seafood items -- gives the impression that Fields doesn't goes out on a limb much, but when he does, the results can be delicious. We loved the Mediterranean slaw ($9.50), grape leaves shredded with savoy cabbage and red onion in a honey-kissed balsamic vinaigrette. Balsamic also enhanced the tomato and mozzarella soup ($6.95), a thick, tomato-rich mixture with plenty of fresh basil thrown in. More fun was the Zebra pasta pocket ($17.95), a black-and-white-striped triangle of pasta filled with bits of lobster, baby shrimp and scallops in a rich-tasting but light-textured lobster cream sauce. And if Fields is a little enamored of harissa, you can't blame him: While few chefs in town use the Middle Eastern condiment, it lent a nice, unusual touch to the mashed potatoes (and haven't we eaten enough horseradish and garlic versions by now?). The spiced spuds came with the New York strip ($28.95), a flawlessly grilled sixteen-ouncer coated with a mushroom-port-wine sauce. Our other meat entree, the beef Napoleon ($27.95), wore an intense and decadent roasted-garlic demi-glace, which took us back to Field's forte: French cuisine. But again we found harissa in the potato croquettes.
This meal had gone off without a hitch, so we had to spring for our own desserts. Since many of Sambuca's offerings are rather plain (cheesecake, ice cream) for such sumptuous surroundings, we opted to share the chocolate mousse ($5.95). It was simple but sinful, and we were still licking our spoons long after the bowl was empty.
Another crooner serenaded us as we made our way back through the crowded bar area -- sometimes a good pickup place and sometimes not, according to our server -- and then we stepped out into the night, full and satisfied.
Sambuca's winning recipe is no shot in the dark. Pour me another, please.