Sushi Samba has been progressively global in its food and beverage offerings since its inception over 15 years ago in New York City. Taking inspiration from Japan, Brazil and Peru, the culturally diverse restaurant concept was ahead of its time from the outset and has managed to maintain its chic vibe by constantly evolving. From a single Manhattan location, Sushi Samba has expanded to include five units across New York City; Las Vegas; Miami and Coral Gables, Florida; and London. The restaurants are celebrated not only for their innovative cuisine, but also for their far-reaching drinks offerings and spirited designs.
“Sushi Samba is all about energy,” says Samba Brands Management CEO and cofounder Shimon Bokovza. “I wanted to make Japanese restaurants fun. It’s all about music, art and the meeting of cultures, and our design reflects that philosophy. The look, feel and atmosphere are different for each location, and that approach sets us apart.”
Following a decade of successful operations, Sushi Samba’s management team began adding new concepts in 2010. Samba Brands Management now oversees a portfolio that also includes the South American venue Sugarcane Raw Bar Grill and the Mediterranean- and Italian-themed restaurant Bocce in Miami and the European eatery Duck & Waffle in London. All of the concepts put a heavy emphasis on design—focusing on a chic street vibe—along with dining and drinks. The beverage segment is crucial to the company’s success, making up 40 percent of the company’s total revenues.
“All of our brands are geared toward a global existence, with an emphasis on food and beverage,” Bokovza says. “We strive to offer the most unique and authentic experience possible for our customers. Our focus on food, drinks, art and music creates a 360-degree experiential approach to dining out.
When Sushi Samba debuted in 1999, it focused on Caipirinhas, Mojitos and sake—drinks that were popular in Brazil, Peru and Japan, but didn’t have a huge following in the United States at the time. Today, those offerings remain top-sellers, and the restaurants have expanded to include other spirits and cocktails from around the globe. The company’s venues take pride in offering inventive beverage options.
“We’ve been leaders in the cocktail industry since opening in 1999,” Bokovza says. Richard Woods, Samba Brands Management’s corporate head of spirits and cocktail development, adds that drinks and food are equally important at the company’s venues. “We treat the bar with the same professional courtesy that a chef gives his kitchen,” Woods explains. “We have an innovative approach to beverage. Drinking for me is all about the experience, and it shouldn’t take a backseat to cuisine.”
Sushi Samba’s signature drink, the Nina Fresa ($14), blends Stolichnaya Strasberi vodka with Original Combier orange liqueur, guava juice, strawberry and lime. The concept’s other staples include a Leblon cachaça–based Caipirinha ($12), Portón Pisco–based Pisco Sour ($13) and the Sambatini (price varies), a drink that changes monthly based on the bar staff’s creations. One recent variation featured shiso-infused Bombay Sapphire gin, house-made mandarin orange bitters, yuzu and tonic. “I’m very proud of our Sambatini program,” says Danielle Billera, a cofounder and managing partner of Samba Brands Management. “We’ve created a fresh Sambatini recipe every single month since the day we opened 15 years ago.”
In addition, Sushi Samba’s inventive concoctions include the Chucumber, made with Iichiko shochu, St-Germain elderflower liqueur, muddled cucumber and lime; the Samba Juice, comprising Bacardi Razz and Grand Melón rums, DeKuyper Crème de Banana liqueur, passion fruit purée, açai, watermelon and guava; and the Brisa Caliente, a blend of Tres Agaves Blanco Tequila, Domaine de Canton ginger liqueur, mango nectar, lime, passion fruit and serrano chili (drinks average $13 to $15).
The company’s most recent drinks innovation is a line of culinary cocktails that combine drinks with food, created collaboratively with the concept’s executive chef. Popular selections include the Kobe Old Fashioned, made with Yamazaki 12-year-old whisky that’s been fat-washed with high-grade Kobe beef and stirred with maple syrup and salted caramel, and the Tom Yam, comprising coriander-infused Reyka vodka, ginger syrup, lemon juice, kaffir lime leaves, fresh coriander, and red and green chilies, served with turbot nigiri. The drinks are only available at the London Sushi Samba, but the company expects to launch them stateside later this year.
“We like to pair the usual and familiar with the unusual and unfamiliar,” Woods says. “The usual and familiar serve as the foundation of the drink, and the unusual and unfamiliar take shape in the unique combination of ingredients. Drinks must be memorable enough that they garner a following, resulting in something that can transcend trends. We want to create drinks that have longevity and become modern day classics.”
Sushi Samba aims to be a leader across beverage alcohol. In addition to its creative cocktail program, the restaurant boasts an encyclopedic menu of sake and shochu spanning some 65 labels. The venues offer glass pours ($9 to $15) and upscale bottled selections ($22 a 300-ml. bottle to $300 a 720-ml. bottle), listing each with tasting notes to guide guests. “The cuisine of Japan is a major component for Sushi Samba’s culinary offerings, so it only makes sense to offer a comprehensive and carefully curated sake list at the restaurants,” says Craig Tabandera, Samba Brands Management’s beverage director. “We have trained sake sommeliers at each restaurant. We’re proud that our Las Vegas location carries the largest premium sake offering in the western United States.”
To further help guests demystify sake, the restaurants offer a monthly Sushi & Sake 101 class. Participants learn about the different types of sake, along with its history and production methods, and they sample five labels paired with light snacks. The class also offers lessons on sushi.
Sushi Samba makes a keen commitment to beer and wine too. The concept’s beer menu highlights brews from Japan, Brazil and Peru and also includes a handful of other labels from around the globe ($6 to $45 a bottle). Meanwhile, its wine list features both Old and New World producers ($9 to $13 a glass; $35 to $400 a 750-ml. bottle). “Our wine and sake programs have always been progressive,” Tabandera explains. “We offer the most comprehensive, worldly selections available in a compact, user-friendly list. We tap into a deep well of styles and flavors so we can offer something for everyone.”
Sushi Samba’s food menu aims to emulate global street fare with a stylish and upscale flair. The restaurants offer an array of food categories, from Japanese small plates, sushi and sashimi to Latin ceviches and traditional Peruvian grilled meat and vegetable skewers (food ranges from $8 to $44). Standouts include Yellowtail Taquitos served with avocado and roasted corn miso; Miqueca Mista, a large dish of shrimp, squid, sea bass, mussels and clams with coconut milk, dendê oil and chimichurri rice; and the El Topo roll, made with salmon, jalapeño, shiso leaf, red onion, fresh melted mozzarella and crispy onion.
“Sushi Samba has been a successful brand for 15 years because the food and drinks are excellent,” Billera says. “We’re always innovating in our kitchen and behind our bars, and that strategy keeps people coming back. Our commitment to maintaining the highest level of food and beverage standards sets us apart from the competition.”
Samba Brands Management’s other U.S. restaurants—Bocce and Sugarcane Raw Bar Grill, both in Miami—also feature a cultural, street vibe. Sugarcane has international influences with a South American slant and features robata fare, a raw bar and hot entrées, as well as an extensive rum collection. The venue offers myriad mixed drinks, including cocktails made with beer and sparkling wine ($11 to $13). Named for the Italian ball sport, Bocce has roots in the Mediterranean and features a regional Italian menu with barrel-aged cocktails ($12 to $13) and several house-made spirits. The venue also boasts a bustling wine menu with more than 100 Italian labels and Enomatic machines for glass pours. Rounding out the company’s portfolio, Duck & Waffle in London celebrates its location with a British-themed menu of small plates designed for sharing and a creative drinks list that includes savory ingredients, from tomato consommé to bone marrow. The venue is located atop a 40-story skyscraper and claims to be the most-elevated restaurant in the United Kingdom.
The company’s restaurants attract guests ranging in age from 20 to 40, and executives say the venues are geared toward people with a high discretionary income. Several sites are currently being explored for expansion in the coming years. Along with additional locations in New York City, Miami and London, Samba Brands is looking to move into California, Washington, D.C., and Dubai. “We grew from two administrative people working out of an apartment and one storefront to four restaurant concepts and eight locations across the globe,” Bokovza says. “We now have close to 70,000 square feet of restaurant real estate and employ more than 2,000 staff members. We serve millions of meals and drinks a year. Our goal is to always get better.”
The drinks component will remain a focus going forward. “When Sushi Samba debuted in 1999, we were at the forefront of mixology,” Tabandera says. “Instead of blenders, we used fresh fruit and flavor combinations not present in the marketplace at that time. Today, we maintain a strong presence in the beverage world with our innovative cocktail program.” Woods adds that having an inventive drinks menu engages guests. “It makes people return to our restaurants out of genuine curiosity,” Woods says. “We aim to bridge the beverage and food worlds.”