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Sake & Samba — A traditional steakhouse with a modern feel

SAKE & SAMBA ★★½

700 N. Milwaukee Ave., Vernon Hills

(847) 367-5607;

sakesamba.com

Hours: 5-9:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday; 4:30 p.m.-10 p.m. Friday-Saturday; 4 -9 p.m. Sunday. (Call ahead for special holiday hours.)

Prices: Dinner, Tues.-Thurs. $22.95; dinner, Fri.-Sun., $27.95; desserts, $7.

Try: Nearly a dozen different cuts and types of meat are available, from filet mignon wrapped in bacon to Brazilian sausage and leg of lamb and pork tenderloin. A well-stocked salad bar with hot and cold choices and a token sushi station also are part of the “all-you-can-eat” package.

Tips: Reservations accepted. Full bar service. Free parking.

In a bite: The churrasco-style of cooking at Sake & Samba in Vernon Hills is turning into a suburban food magnet for dedicated meat lovers drawn to this Brazilian-inspired cuisine.

KEY: ★★★★ Extraordinary; ★★★ Excellent;
★★ Very Good; ★ Good;
Zero stars: Poor

The Brazilian-style churrasco, or steakhouse, is no stranger here. Dedicated carnivores have long had their pick from a number of these meat emporiums, both in Chicago and suburbs.

Sake & Samba, which opened in mid-2011 in Vernon Hills, has broadened the concept of all-you-can-eat flame-roasted meats and introduced a Japanese touch.

But don’t be thrown off. While the bar offers a sake selection, on the food side of the menu, there’s not much Japanese-South American fusion going on other than a token sushi dish nestled in among the hot and cold items of an otherwise well-stocked salad buffet.

The concept is one inspired by the Brazilian heritage of gauchos, or cowboys, cooking their meats, barbecue-style, on swords over an open fire.

Sake & Samba follows tradition. Its modern-day gauchos dress in black shirts and pants and wear riding boots. They’re constantly in motion, each bearing a long skewer speared with a different meat as they flit from table to table.

The selection, broader on weekends, varies among beef, pork, lamb and chicken. The fixed-price, $22.95 Tuesday-Thursday and $27.95 Friday-Sunday, includes all the meat as well as access to a walk-up salad bar.

In theory, guests control who comes to their table and when by flipping a tiny painted wood dowel to green or red. But sometimes the visual cue is ignored and diners find themselves besieged by one or more servers jumping the gun with their wares.

Crisp romaine, shrimp salad with shredded cheese and mayonnaise, roasted peppers, sun-dried tomatoes and fresh fruit, including watermelon and mixed berries were some of the diverse items populating the salad bar. So did hot lentil soup and rice and black beans. Lost in the shuffle was roll-style western sushi — rice-filled with crab, with wasabi and soy sauce on the side — the only Japanese-influenced item.

While the salad selections appeal, restraint is the recommended strategy for anyone planning to do justice to the main event.

Before the meat parade commenced, servings of creamy garlic-mashed potatoes and fried bananas were brought to the table along with a basket of delectable still-warm bite-size cheese rolls made with tapioca flour.

Chicken wrapped in smoky bacon started this segment of the meal on a high note. It was followed by Picanha com alho, a tender sirloin cut seasoned with garlic; linguica, addictive Brazilian pork sausages; melt-in-the-mouth top prime sirloin; and bacon-wrapped filet mignon. For me, the piece de resistance was sliced and perfectly seasoned young leg of lamb served with mint jelly.

The only miss was the Costela de boi (beef rib), which was both fatty and strangely gamey.

Grilled pineapple, an interloper in the meat convoy, also was on offer as a palate cleanser.

After such a substantial meal, not everyone will answer to the dessert call. My guest and I rallied to share an old favorite: papaya cream. This confection blended soft vanilla ice cream with a puree of unsweetened fresh papaya; a splash of creme de cassis added by our server added further interest. Other a la carte options included flan, chocolate mousse pie, cheesecake and tiramisu.

Sake & Samba has a modern look and feel: maple flooring, wood seats and flattering lighting. The recorded soundtrack, initially playing some American numbers that seemed out of place, shifted as the night wore on to lively Brazilian music.

The restaurant seats about 140 in its main dining room and has adjoining space that can accommodate small private parties. Its full-service bar turns out specialty cocktails and carries a selection of sakes and domestic and imported wines, including several from Argentina.

Thomas Witom is a local free-lance writer.



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