after dinner sneeze

a lot of g says, t says

Sampan: Quite the Center City Steal

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t says:  It was the Saturday before Valentine’s Day, so that means several things.  1)  It’s cold (as a matter of fact, the city is still recovering from the ?20? inches of snow it weathered 3 days ago, and bracing for another storm on Monday).  2)  It’s a great excuse to eat dinner out.  3)  Every restaurant and their mother will be offering fixed price menus at absolutely absurd prices.  For instance, Fork, which has been around a while and recently got 3 bells from LaBan somehow got away with a 3 course dinner – 1 of which is dessert – at a price tag of $70 excluding tax/tip/beverage.  I don’t care if they had 23 bells – at $70 pp, it better be Vetri-good!  Thus, g and I do our best to avoid obligatory fixed price shenanigans.  Enter Sampan.

Sampan is a relatively new Philadelphia restaurant helmed by Michael Schulson (of the TV show Pantry Raid and the well-received “modern Japanese pub” in Atlantic City called Izakaya).  This restaurant featuring “modern Asian small plates” sounded like a good idea, but with so many poor (e.g. Pod) and good-but-not-great (e.g. Chifa) modern takes on Asian cuisine in the city, I was wary – would this be just another white-guy-who-does-“Asian-inspired”-food?  I figured that if he did well with Izakaya (so I’ve read – I’ve never been), then surely he could do it again.  So I booked the opentable reservation and let it be a surprise for g (she likes that sort of thing).

2/2010, Saturday Dinner, Party of 2.  We walk in the door and it is packed!  Every table is full, the bar is two people thick the entire way around, and there is a line to the hostess.  When I do get to her for our 9:30pm reservation, she was only somewhat polite but told us that they were running a half-hour behind (but really didn’t direct us towards the bar or a waiting area or offer to take our coats … g was not impressed to say the least).  If it wasn’t Valentine’s Day weekend, we would have gone elsewhere – but because we could potentially run into a bad fixed price menu (or a similar wait time), we opted to stand around and look hungry (politely of course – I’m sure some diners were just taking too long to leave).  Our conversation topics included the following: “What do you think they’ll comp for us?”, “Do you think that’s her dad or her date?”, and “Do you think that’s Michael Schulson?” (it was – he came out to greet the dad/date personally – that patron must have been someone important).  After 37 minutes passed, we were led to our table, but we had our happy faces on, because in a situation like this, we just don’t think any good can come from being irate patron (we didn’t want any additional saliva in our food) .

We were given a drink menu, and, after we were CARDED, g went for a glass of Albarino, while I opted for a half carafe of the “Flower in the Wind” sake (not being a sake aficionado, I was suckered by a flavor description including peach and strawberry).  g felt that her wine was reminiscent of alcoholic grape juice (which means she liked it) – I felt that it was a little warm and may have been out for a day or so, so it wasn’t very bright.  The sake on the other hand was delicious: smooth, surprisingly fruity and creamy, but not overpowering; neither g nor I have ever had such a fruity sake.  Its playfulness went well with a lot of what we ate.

After an introduction to the menu by our waiter (who named his favorite dish from each of the categories of foods), we were advised that 3-4 plates per person was recommended.  g and I decided that we were going to completely ignore his advice and order whatever we wanted to try (of which only 1 was a dish he referenced).  We settled on 1 plate from 5 (of the ?7?) categories on the menu.  “Hot”: Pork Bahn Mi, “Cold”: Yellowtail Sashimi, “Salad”: Chicken Bim Bim Bap (an odd category for this dish), “Noodles”: Pad Thai, “Sides”: Crispy Brussels Sprouts.

The Yellowtail Sashimi hit the table first.  The five reasonably-sized pieces of fish were accompanied by arugula, 2 strips of bacon (“she’s got jungle fever, she’s got jungle fever …” – anyone get this Scrubs reference?), and “pear kimchi” (not likely pickled in kimchi sauce, rather, lightly tossed).  To be honest, the fish was good, but easily overpowered by the bacon and arugula.  Additionally, there was some sort of green sauce on the fish(almost like an arugula puree – but I could be wrong – maybe I was just still tasting the arugula from prior bites), so I didn’t get as much yellowtail flavor that I love.  The pear kimchi was the shining star of this dish – it was sweet and spicy and great in combination with the bacon and arugula.  It reminded me of the momofuku recipe (awesome cookbook) where David Chang tosses apple cubes in a puree of kimchi and couples them with bacon and arugula.  Had Schulson’s dish been constructed differently (i.e. put the greens, bacon, and kimchi-fruit together – give me straight up fish on the side) , it would have been a hit.

The next dish was the Pork Banh Mi.  I don’t know what this dish is traditionally supposed to be, but Schulson’s take is delicious.  We were served what looked like a wrapped up hoagie from Wawa (except replace the white masking tape with blue painters’ tape).  When we unwrapped the present, what we found was a delightfully golden roll (crisp on the outside and soft on the inside, just as a hoagie roll should be) that was filled with slices of tender pork belly, finely shredded cucumber and carrot, and some sort of sweet/spicy/tangy sauce (that almost tasted ?cheesy? too).  I’m not exactly sure how these components added up to what my mouth experienced, but all I can say is that it was heaven in a hoagie roll.  If you gave me one of these next to a Tony Luke Steak Italian (with rabe of course!), it would actually be an impossible decision for me to make – they’re both good in the same exact way!  Something about the banh mi was, as I like to tell g, “soul-satisfying”, making me feel that what I’m eating is doing more than just flooding my tastebuds and filling my stomach.  I noted that it’s not the absolute best-tasting thing I’ve ever eaten – but there’s just something about experiencing those flavors as a sandwich and eating it with my hands that just hits the spot (g: “I believe the word you’re looking for is scrumptious).  I hope you feel the same when you eat it, too.

The Crispy Brussels Sprouts and Pad Thai came next.  The brussels sprouts were caramelized very well (although perhaps the largest pieces could have used a few more seconds in the heat to be just a little more tender) and accompanied by cilantro, salt (?fish sauce?), spice (?chile?), and acid (?touch of vinegar?).  g liked the dish a lot but felt that it could have used a little less salt; I thought it was fabulous (I <3 salt).  While it was an awesome take on brussels sprouts (that would have been a great side to have with the pork bahn mi), something struck me as familiar – I later found a recipe that I had used from the Momofuku cookbook for Brussels sprouts that seems very close to what Sampan had (including sprouts, fish sauce, rice wine vinegar, chiles, cilantro, and mint).  That said, Sampan’s was superior to my own attempt (likely because of they’re superior cooking skills).  As for the pad thai, I found it a little sweet (kind of like how ketchup is sweet), nevertheless, the noodles were cooked perfectly (I hate mushy pad thai), and the heat was inviting, not discouraging.  Perhaps this was a lighter, appetizer-esque pad thai, in lieu of the normal peanutty, savory entree-esque pad thai that I’m used to (e.g. at Lemongrass in West Philly).  g liked it very much (she’s like standard pad thai, too), and wouldn’t hesitate to order it again.

Finally, the chicken bim bim bap came to the table (after they reset our dishes and silverware).  When I think of [“soul-satisfying”] bim bim bap, I think of dolsot bim bim bap, which features a hot stone bowl (which browns the rice and cooks the egg), veggies, a little meat, and a savory and spicy sauce to meld together all the components.  I forgot that bim bim bap can also be done cold (which I still like), in which case the raw egg acts like a binder.  Schulson made some tweaks.  The egg was cooked sunny side up (or maybe it was over easy, I forget) before it came to the table, and the bowl was a standard serving bowl, so I imagine the intention was for it to be like a cold bim bim bap.  The rice was a little stiff (like it had been placed in a box and cooled before serving.  The veggies, sauce, meat, rice, and egg were mixed for us tableside by the server (I kind of wanted to do that, myself).  The end result was reminiscent of the classic mish-mash of bim bim bap, however, the sauce caught me offguard once again as not having the savory and spice I’m used to, rather, a bit of sweet.  That said – everything still tasted very good – just don’t expect old world Korean if you order it.  While I’m 100% sure that my grandfather is definitely not going to be hunched over a bowl of this bim bim bap, aggressively attacking it with his chopsticks, lips smacking, and sweat building on his forehead, the average diner at Sampan (just so long as you’re ok with runny egg yolk) will probably greatly appreciate this version (g liked both this dish and the pad thai a lot!).  In retrospect, it seems like Schulson is purposefully reinventing dishes to make them light and fun.

For dessert, g was stuffed, so I ordered the Sampan equivalent of a molten lava cake.  Now, I’m a sucker for this genre of desserts, and tonight’s was in the top 3 that I’ve had (Number 1 is Morton’s Godiva flourless lava cake – there’s something about it where I will eat it, risking rupturing my stomach, no matter how full I am).  BUT – it’s not “normal”.  For starters, instead of cake, he opted for a light and airy hemisphere of milk chocolate mousse that rests on top of a disk of dense chocolate cake.  The ‘lava’ is somehow suspended in the mousse and does spill out upon piercing the hemisphere.  The end result is a decadent AND light chocolate dessert that makes you happy at the end of your meal without pushing you over the edge risking organ damage.  This was accompanied by a ‘cookie’ (i.e. a super-thin wafer) and a smear of raspberry that was unfortunately so thin and stuck to the plate that I couldn’t scoop it up with my cake to taste any!  My only criticisms with the dessert (aside from not being able to sample the raspberry smear) is that the lava could have been just a smidge darker chocolate (to foil with the sweeter milk chocolate mousse) and also a tiny bit thicker in consistency so that it could would be easier to spoon up after it spills onto your plate (I had contemplated licking the plate in order to recover that which I couldn’t retrieve with my spoon).  Now I know this sounds like the dessert was a “miss”, but trust me, it was delicious – I’m just being overly critical.

Finally, to close our meal, our waiter came over and informed us that he was sorry for our wait.  Because of this, he said that the restaurant would like to comp our dessert and my sake.  g and I appreciated this generosity very much, but, while we joked about it between ourselves, we neither expected nor even thought that such an action was warranted – it was a busy night – no excuses needed.  In any case, this act proved to us the gracious attitude of Sampan, and I hope that their hospitality takes them far in this city.  I also hope that they can retain it if they do get some critical acclaim, as no one likes a pretentious restaurant.

I want to note that having some of our bill comped is NOT the reason why I think that Sampan is a steal.  With alcohol and tax, our total tab would have been $79 (and I still had a substantial amount of sake left – they give so much more here than at Fuji Mountain) – it was $61 without the EtOH (i.e. less than a SINGLE person’s fixed price at Fork!  shazam!)  The “small plates” (or at least the ones we enjoyed the most) were huge for being “small”.  I feel that if you want to eat on the cheap for two people (and can share nicely), get the sprouts ($6), the bahn mi ($9), a noodle (~$12), and a dessert ($8), and for the price of a single restaurant week dinner, you can get a quantity of food that two people should be eating at a single dinner.  Of course, if you’re like us, you’ll end up over-eating every time you eat out, but even if you add another vegetable or app-ish plate (the server was REALLY pushing those wonton tacos for $10), or, if you’re really hungry, another noodle, that’s still very reasonable for what’s supposed to be “modern Asian” food in Philly (Pod, Buddakan, and Chifa are WAY more expensive for this quantity of food).  Compared to my favorite “small plates” restaurant, Amada, the food at Sampan might be nearly as good (“nearly” because I have certain expectations when it comes to Asian-esque foods – so I’m not on board with all of Schulson’s tweaksbut his very best dishes just might go toe-to-toe with Amada’s best), and it’s far easier to eat plenty and be happy without going broke.

Written by afterdinnersneeze

14 February 2010 at 9:59pm

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