504 N. Wells St. (500N, 200W)
Chicago, IL 60654
Though SushiSamba has been a River North fusion dining destination for over a decade, it has a little secret: the Sugarcane Lounge. Set discretely on the third floor, Sugarcane Lounge offers one of the most impressive drinking spots in the city, paired with an excellent selection of global food and libations. The place is perfect for intimate early evening gatherings, as well as those looking for a late night salsa-infused dance party. Now, the secret's out...
Sushi Samba is almost impossible to miss with its bright two-story rectangular sign and over-sized entrance emblazoned with world flags. Inside, you'll find a spacious service bar to your right and a cavernous dining room built around a circular sushi-raw bar. Avoid the urge to ask the hostess for directions and suavely pivot to your left and head for the corner beneath the stairs. There you'll find a partially concealed elevator with "Sugarcane Lounge" projected above. Step into the small, wood-lined elevator car where you will be escorted to your destination by a short, jolly, portly, bosomy Buddha, who reminded me that I need to start hitting the gym more often.
Step out into a stunning glass-covered atrium that offers year-round access to cocktails under the stars and some partial skyline views. The East-West fusion extends to the decor, with Carnival-colored cushions and steel support columns offset by dark woods, bamboo reeds and dim mood lighting. A curved 40 foot glass-tiled bar runs along the left of the room. Here you'll find two flat-panel televisions, often tuned to international soccer matches, which serve more as a distraction than an attraction. Opposite the bar, a series of couches, divans and low-slung tables lie separated by a row of dark wood trellises. This creates several comfortable semi-private spaces, ideal for small groups. In between, a narrow open area which serves as both standing room and dance floor. Two private bathrooms are located at the far end of the room, a nice touch compared with the unnerving communal bathrooms in the restaurant below which are staffed by female attendants.
A nice feature of Sugarcane is that for most of the evening you can select from the full Sushi Samba menu. This gives you access to a full selection of sushi, ceviches, small plates and entrees cooked on Chicago's only robata grill, a Japanese-style charcoal grill. Overall, I think this is some of the best Latin and Japanese food in the city and can recommend virtually the entire menu. For something different, try the sawagani. These flash-fried miniature river crabs, which are about the size of a quarter, look like they're ready march right off the plate. They'll shock you at first sight, but will thrill you at first bite.
Though you can grab yourself a beer—there are some interesting Japanese and Brazilian selections—Sugarcane Room is a good place to expand your drinking horizons. There is a full selection of hot and cold sake offerings and I'm told there's an in-house sommelier who can help you make a selection. In addition to the sambatini of the month, there are nine fruity and flavorful signature cocktails, like the Lemon Samurai, and a number of Japanese and Latin-inspired creations. I have long been a fan of the Caipirinha, the national drink of Brazil made with cachaca sugarcane liquor, and Sugarcane Lounge serves one of the best in the city. (Once you've tried a caipirinha, you'll never look at margaritas the same way again and will realize that, comparatively, mojitos taste like drinking a stick of Wrigley's spearmint gum.) Feeling adventurous? Try a "cocktail tree": a contraption that holds 12 shots made from a selection of the house cocktails. Expect to spend $9-$11 a cocktail, a fair price for the quality and ambiance, unless you find a rare house special.
Speaking of which, "Raise the Roof" Thursdays offers drink and appetizer specials, as well as live DJs spinning Brazilian beats and original mixes. House and guest DJs are on hand most evenings after 10pm, so expect the volume to rise accordingly. The crowd is generally as trendy as the surroundings and tends to be a multicultural mix of urbanites a few years above the legal drinking age. You don't necessarily have to dress up, but if you're looking to hook up this is probably not the best place to go when you're "slumming it." Generally, the action at Sugarcane Lounge runs from 8pm-2am Wednesday-Saturday, but checking ahead never hurts.
For world-class food and drink in an attractive, sleek, global setting, Sugarcane Lounge is a sweet choice. If you like Sushi Samba and the Sugarcane Lounge, you will definitely, positively like Carnivale, you just may like Rumba, and you'll probably hate Richard's Bar. For more information, or to find out about sushi making and sake tasting classes, visit the Sushi Samba website. Cha-cha-cha!
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