after dinner sneeze

a lot of g says, t says

Posts Tagged ‘Sampan

Meritage: KFC is “Doing Chicken Right” (and a Sampan bonus)

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t says: We’ve been to Meritage a couple times before and liked it.  To summarize those experiences: Chef Coll has some talent brewing in the kitchen, and, while not every dish was a smash hit, I really appreciated the creativity, and g really appreciated good food for a good price.  But what’s happened since then?  Not much, really – at least – not for us.  We’ve just never really found an excuse to return to Meritage.  Its price-point puts it at a similar cost to Melograno, which is BYO … meaning that we’re going to go to Melograno every time.  It’s such a shame.  Well … let me tell you that things are going to change …

7/2010, 8:30pm, Party of 3.  It’s a Thursday.  At Meritage, that means it’s Korean Fried Chicken (KFC) night.  $25 gets you a meal for two: 6 pieces of fried chicken in a spicy/savory/sweet Korean bbq sauce, a few sides, and 20-oz of beer.  It was on like Donkey Kong.

g and cm visited first.  I don’t want to put words in their mouth … but I will.  They reported that the chicken was cooked deliciously (but not really “spicy”) and the sides were also very good, but small.  They suspected that 3 people sharing two orders would be the “ideal” amount of food so that everyone would be “very full”.  Yes, they had other details, too, but if I told you what they were, then you wouldn’t read the rest of this post …

g, kp, and I then made reservations for the very next week.  We were seated promptly and then taken care of by a very friendly, enthusiastic server.  No, he wasn’t so bubbly that it seemed fake or overwhelming, rather, just the right amount of energy to put us in a good mood (not that we were in a bad one, but we were even better after talking to him).  He told us of that night’s special fried chicken dish as well as some other meat dish that we instantly forgot about.  We ordered two orders for the three of us, but asked if they could have a little extra spice to them – I pointed out that although kp and I were new, my wife was there last week and wanted a little more kick on her KFC.  I did this for a few reasons.  The first is that I apparently like dropping the W-bomb.  It makes me feel older, more accomplished, worthy of respect.  I like that.  The second is that I wanted to draw attention to the fact that at a table of two Asian dudes and a small white girl, it was the small white girl who felt that there needs to be more spice – so the chef definitely needed to kick it up a notch if she was going to appeal to the two Asians.  Am I playing stereotypes?  I sure am (actually, g can handle more spice than me … *hangs his head in shame*).

When the chicken arrived, it looked amazing.  Two plates, heaped with 6 pieces of chicken, emanated this beautiful scent.  You could smell the sweetness and spiciness of the bbq sauce, as well as something that reminded me of soy sauce (like if you could “smell” savory) – but not like smelling saltiness.  I don’t know – it was hard to describe; it smelled “great”.  The chicken’s crust was delightfully crispy, and easily gave way to juicy tender meat.  The savory and sweet hits your palate first with heat coming on as you chewed.  The chicken was so moist and tender that it tasted like it was braised and then deep-fried at the last second.  Apparently it had been brined, so maybe that was the trick.  Amazingly, after you swallowed, the spice dissipated, which was nice, because it didn’t overwhelm the palate.  The other amazing/weird thing was the size of the chicken bones – they were quite small.  g asked kp and me, “What kind of chickens are these?  Do they like work them out in a gym or something?  Do you think it’s because they’re super organic?  Or maybe they use super hormones?  I mean, I don’t really care, cuz they’re freakin’ delicious.”  g is funny.

The sides were pretty good, too.  The spinach reminded me of classic Korean spinach (sigumchi) – except for not as much sesame seed as I’m used to.  g said that they had more sesame seeds the previous week, so I’m sure it was spot on, as that was really the only thing that could have taken me way back to eating at Korean restaurants with my mom and grandmom.  The pickled daikon and pickled carrot were also very good – they added the acid that you needed to cut through the chicken’s Korean bbq sauce, so I hope these stay on the menu to give the dish some “lightness”.  The Korean slaw was a bit of a miss for me.  It tasted a little heavy for a slaw – probably because of either sesame oil or sesame seeds.  There was some cilantro to try and pep it up, but there wasn’t enough.  Man, if this was only a little zingier – maybe add a bit of mint in there or something – then this would also be a perfect foil for the chicken.  I don’t know if anyone who knows anyone who knows people who could make this suggestion to Meritage actually reads this blog, but it’d be nice to see if whatever my brain imagined actually was a good idea.  Maybe next time, I’ll bring my own mint and try it out.

The beer … it was beer.  Neither g nor I drink beer, so kp had to take one for the team.  Actually, he had to take 2.  That’s right, he downed 40 ounces of beer on a Thursday night.  Hooray for livers.

Upon the conclusion of the chicken, we ordered desserts, too!  Actually, we ordered only one, but, for reasons I cannot reveal here, more than one came out (we’re mysterious like that).  To be honest – these desserts were better than our latest outing at Zahav – although that probably isn’t saying much.  Passionfruit creamsicles dipped in chocolate – surprisingly fantastic – especially on a warm summer evening.  The chocolate-mint pot-de-creme was luscious – and the pistachio biscotti was among the best biscotti I’ve had in a long time (I’m a sucker for pistachio).  We also had the chocolate-peanut-butter bomb …  That is one helluva-rich dessert.  It was so rich, I kind of wished there was more of the berry jam to cut down the richness.  Actually, even more chocolate would have cut down on the richness, as the peanut butter creme was insane – it was like peanut butter and super-extra-creamy-cool-whip had a baby.  Don’t get me wrong, though, it was “too rich” not in a “I’m-going-to-be-sick” way, rather a “I-wish-I-could-eat-it-faster-but-I-can’t” way … don’t worry – I did get around to eating every last bit.

In the end, we each paid approximately the amount one would pay when going out for restaurant week, and I, for one, was uncomfortably full.  So, go to Meritage.  Go with 3 people and pony up $17 each, and enjoy the deliciousness.

SAMPAN BONUS:

We also went to Sampan the day after Meritage.  We wanted to eat deliciously on the “cheap”, so we went for a 6pm 1000-pt opentable reservation with the intent of going after the beloved pork bahn mi, the crispy Brussels sprouts, and the Korean rice cake dish.  It was … disappointing …  Our favorite pork bahn mi maker wasn’t there, so the ratio of meat and toppings and sauce was all wrong – AND they didn’t even wrap the sandwich in the kraft paper – they just left it open!  The crispy Brussels sprouts could have used a bit more time on the heat, as they were quite hard.  And the Korean rice cakes didn’t have as many rice cakes as I remember (but at least it tasted good!).  We suspect that maybe their “starting lineup” in the kitchen was on vacation, and they were letting the “B-team” take over or something.  Well – either that or Meritage was so good the night before that their KFC has displaced Sampan’s pork bahn mi in crave-ability?  Shazam!  There it is … I went there … it’s over … done.

Written by afterdinnersneeze

2 August 2010 at 5:47pm

The Pig Crawl [and Percy Street BBQ: A Taste of the South on South]

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t says: Last Sunday, g, kp, and I wanted to do a pig crawl. We wanted to sample some notable pig dishes and truly experience pig in all of its glory. We originally planned to go to DiNic’s (in Reading Terminal), Sampan, and Percy Street BBQ. Things don’t always work out as planned.

When the day began we actually found ourselves at Parc with even more friends! We’d gone there once before and, in preparation for our pig crawl, we exerted restraint in choosing our dishes. We opted for the pastry basket, a side of bacon, and a French75. That’s restraint, right? Starting off the day with some buttery pastries and fatty bacon chased by a bubbly cocktail? Sounded good to us! Plus, the bacon meant we were starting our pig crawl early! (which is actually why we ordered it). The pastry basket was delicious like the first time (although the chocolate croissant still had its rod of chocolate), and it included madelines! Sooo good. The bacon was only ok for me, as I like mine a bit thicker (and a little crispier), but the salty, smoky taste of it was quite nice, and, after all, who’s going to argue with bacon? The French75 was exactly as before, so g liked it a lot! Our friends sampled the pomme frites, pain perdu, the poached eggs, and the steak-and-eggs. By the end of the meal, not a single scrap of food remained, so I think it was a success. Good job, Parc. You might not be besting Cochon’s brunch, but you’re a good ol’-reliable.

As g, kp, and I readied to go to DiNic’s, we called ahead just to make sure they were open. It’s a good thing we did because they told us that they only had like 15 sandwiches left and that unless we were “in the area”, we probably wouldn’t get there fast enough. We appreciate their honesty. But that removed DiNic’s from the Pig Crawl! So we decided to take a little break (that pastry basket was quite filling) and skip straight to Sampan.

Sampan was very nearly empty when we got there (5:30). We were seated and enjoyed the Pork Banh Mi, Brussels Sprouts, and the Beautiful Boy sake. The Banh Mi was spot on (you go, Fernandez!) – I grow weary of raving about it, so you can read about it in all of our past reviews. g felt that the meat was the most tender it’s ever been – I felt that there might have been a tad too much cilantro – but it’s not like any of this prevented us from demolishing the sandwich. The Brussels sprouts were a little firmer than I’d like, but still tasty. The sake was as smooth as a baby’s bottom. When we were finished we got up and readied ourselves for the main event – a restaurant we’ve never visited: Percy Street BBQ.

5/2010, Sunday 6:30pm, Party of 3. When we arrived at Percy Street, I was impressed with how big it was. Maybe it was the open windows or something, but it just felt like a very large space! We were seated promptly and happily perused the menu. kp was happy that there was a roll of paper towels on the table – apparently that’s how they do it in the South. We ordered a PST sandwich, the deviled eggs, the mac-and-cheese, and a half-pound each of pork belly and pork spare ribs. We had no idea that this was WAY too much food for three not-starving people.

The mac-and-cheese and deviled eggs arrived first. The deviled eggs were classic deviled eggs. No dill (like Village Whiskey), no fancy add-ins (like Supper) – just eggs, mayo, and paprika. If there was anything else, my feeble palate missed it. They were quite good! Classic. I’m not sure how they got the filling to be so light and fluffy – but it was like an egg yolk cloud in my mouth. The mac-and-cheese came bubbling in a hot dish covered with nicely-toasted breadcrumbs. It was a nice, plain mac-and-cheese. Once again – no weird cheeses, nothing added to it – just mac … and cheese … It was also done well – the macaroni was a soft-but-not-mushy consistency, and the cheese was calm and smooth. kp and I wanted a little more flavor in the mac-and-cheese (maybe some sharper cheese), so kp requested his go-to fix-all, hot sauce. He was pleasantly surprised and satisfied with Percy Street’s selection of hot sauce: Crystal (apparently this is also the hot sauce that is used in the South). It perked up the mac-and-cheese nicely (although if I used as much as kp did, my mouth would still be burning).

When the meat came, I was a little worried that I was getting full … but I pressed on … for the sake of the blog. As the meat was set down, we were asked if we wanted some bread to make sandwiches. Sure! The waitress returned immediately with a basket of sliced white bread. kp was delighted by this as well, as apparently white bread is also how they do it in the South – no fancy baguettes, no brioche – this could have been Wonder Bread. And it worked beautifully. I put some pork belly on the white bread with some of the baked beans. Wow – that was SO tasty. The pork belly was soft and nicely streaked with fat (maybe a little too much for g’s taste – it’s a textural thing). The baked beans had just a touch of sweet and some nice heat and were firm enough so you knew were eating beans, not mush. So good. The ribs were no slouch, either (actually, opposite of my preferences, kp preferred the ribs to the belly!). The meat was super-tender and had enough smoky flavor that made you want to gnaw on the bone to ensure you got every last bit.

g’s PST was a pork belly-coleslaw-pickled green tomato sandwich. It tasted exactly as one might imagine it to taste – the pork belly was the same as I had ordered but the accompaniment of that pickled tomato and cole slaw added some sour and tang. I gravitated towards the belly-bean combination – g gravitated towards her sandwich. I kind of doubted that the belly-bean combo was that good and suspected that the atmosphere was altering my perceptions … Well, I took the leftovers home and ate it the next day; yep – still delicious. I have GOT to learn how to make pork belly like that …

The wait staff was very courteous and the food was quite good, so we liked our Percy Street BBQ experience overall. It was definitely fun to have BBQ-esque food that you could pick up with your hands. I have a feeling that this place could be kind of like a cheap Amada for us in the sense that it would be a blast to dine there with a group of friends. Of course, unlike Amada, the dishes aren’t as polished/refined, but BBQ’s aren’t supposed to be ; Percy Street wasn’t so chic-ified that it lost sight of the whole theme: down-and-dirty BBQ.

g says: Whoa there, cowboy! I wouldn’t go comparing psbbq to the almighty Amada. They are definitely not in the same galaxy of awesomeness. Don’t get me wrong, we did have a great time and really enjoyed our meal, but I wouldn’t get carried away. Are you with me, kp? Okay, I’ve said my piece – back to your regularly scheduled programming…

t says: That said, a true, Southern BBQ seeker I imagine will be disappointed with Percy Street because it’s not that down-and-dirty, but for someone who wants a slight touch of clean with their down-and-dirty (kind of like a down-and-dirty-lite), I think he/she will be satisfied – we sure were. Actually, we look forward to taking our dads there … between ribs (for my dad) and chicken (for g’s dad), I just can’t see how they wouldn’t like it!

Written by afterdinnersneeze

5 May 2010 at 1:25am

Chifa and Sampan: Battle Pork Banh Mi

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t says: On Saturday, g and I had a hankering for Sampan’s Pork Banh Mi.  By the way, it has come to our attention that although Sampan spells it “Bahn”, it might actually be “Banh” – so we apologize for mis-spelling it and will slowly go back through our old posts to fix it.  Regardless of how it’s spelled, we wanted it again, as we’ve had it twice so far <#1, #2>, and were happy both times (although we liked it better the first time).  Then I remembered that Chifa also has this  sandwich on their menu; we’ve never had it, but it’s Jose Garces – could his be as equally as awesome?  We felt the storm clouds gathering, casting thick shadows on the grassy field upon which an epic battle was to take place … could Iron Chef Garces beat out Challenger Michael Schulson in Battle Pork Banh Mi?  Furthermore, because Chifa’s more known for its Bao buns (steamed buns with pork belly), should that dish also be taken into consideration – perhaps as an exhibition match?  Thus, we devised a pig-centric three-way battle.  Here we go …

Chifa: 4/2010, Saturday 6pm, Party of 2.  We decided to go to Chifa first.  We did this for a couple of reasons.  The first is that clearly Chifa was going to be the challenger with regard to the sandwich, as we knew that we liked Sampan’s already; Chifa deserved the advantage of being eaten while we were the most hungry.  Furthermore, we wanted to end up at Sampan because it was closer to home (thus a shorter distance to walk afterward on a full stomach) and because if we were still hungry, we knew there were plenty of other delightful items on Sampan’s menu (overall, we and our wallets liked dinners at Sampan more than those we had at Chifa).

We were seated promptly (without a reservation) and we apologized in advance to our waitress that we wouldn’t be ordering a lot as we were doing a pork banh mi face-off.  She seemed amused by and was happy to entertain our ridiculosity.  We ended up ordering a spicy margarita, the pork belly bao buns (Chifa’s signature dish), and the pork banh mi (which apparently was added to the menu around January).

The first dish that was brought out was complimentary “bread”.  When it first hit the table, I was highly suspicious.  I didn’t recall them having a bread basket the last times we went.  In the back of my mind, I reasoned that it was obviously the chef’s attempt to fill us up so that by the time we got to Sampan, we’d be too full to eat.  Obviously, I was too smart for him/her.  Well, whatever the reason/delusion, that was some fine bread.  These were the size/shape of the steamed buns, except that they had more of the baked-brown look with the smell of cheese.  They were served with a spreadable brown spicy sauce.  When I bit into it, the first thing I noticed wasn’t a taste, rather, a texture; it reminded me of slightly undercooked Pillsbury dough.  Sounds gross?  Nope.  It brought back childhood memories of home baking experiments – awesome!  The bread was savory and soft and warm and gooey, and when coupled with the spicy sauce, it was a flavorful way to start our meal.  I eventually reasoned that this obviously must not be the chef’s intention to sabotage our perception of Sampan’s food, as to do that, he would have had to given us more than four of these … because if there were more, we would have definitely eaten them all throughout the course of the meal (our other dishes had some sauce “smears” on the plates that we would have also sopped up with the bread).

The bao buns were next.  You know – that Jose Garces is always so slick with presentation.  I just don’t know how you can make pale-looking buns and brown-colored meat look that appetizing on a plate, but he [or whoever is actually in the kitchen constructing it] does it superbly – it looks like it’s ready for a photo shoot.  Of course, I had to re-structure the components so that it could be handled and eaten more easily (a pretty stack isn’t always the easiest-to-eat), but I appreciated the effort to appeal to my eyes.  Like my eyes, my mouth also appreciated the buns immensely.  The very tender pork belly screamed sweet and savory.  The daikon and carrot added some salty sour.  Mix all of those with the texture of the light, fluffy, pillow-y bun and it was even better than the first times we went!  I did notice, however, that the pieces of meat I had weren’t as fatty as pork belly can be – which is good or bad depending on your stance (I kinda like the fat).  In any case, these really make me want to taste Momofuku’s …

The pork banh mi came out last.  Although of a similar size, Garces’s sandwich isn’t wrapped in craft paper like Sampan, rather, is presented naked, cut in half, and accompanied by yet another sauce smear.  The first thing I noticed was that the bread looked particularly delicious – it appeared golden brown, crusty, and not the least bit squished from cutting.  And you know what – that was some good bread, with an awesome outside crust that resembling a Tony Luke’s cheese steak.  As soon as my teeth broke past the bread, I inhaled a breath of vegetable/herb freshness – there was cucumber and carrot with some mint and cilantro.  As my teeth chewed on the pork pieces (the waitress said it was pork shoulder), it released sweet, but was quickly followed by another salty, savory, mushy-textured experience: the pate!  Apparently Jose likes to add pate to the sandwich, which was only so-so in terms of taste (the flavor of the pate is kind of muted versus the rest of the ingredients in the sandwich, so I didn’t want it to dominate).  Furthermore, with later bites, I found that it’d aid the pork in sliding out the back of the sandwich as I chomped on the bread by acting as a lubricant – that was annoying.  Finally, upon swallowing, I noticed a bit of heat.  At first, I thought it was the spicy margarita, but it was not; sliced jalapenos were hidden among the greens.  The heat was nice just so long as you didn’t happen to get an overwhelming piece of chile.  Overall, the sandwich was good – the vegetables were very bold and up front, the bread and sauce were excellent, and the meat was tender.  I deduct points for the pate (just leave it out!) and too little sauce (put it on my sandwich, not a smear on my plate).  Not bad a bad showing …

After concluding these tastings, we paid our bill and walked over to Sampan.  I was no longer “hungry” but “I could eat” …

Sampan: 4/2010, Saturday 7pm, Party of 2.  We were seated promptly at the “bar” the faces the open kitchen.  This time we were further from the salamanders, and closer to the appetizer prep stations.  As we sat, we watched a pork banh mi being made – it looked simple enough – take some bread, slice it, add some sauce, add the meat, add the veggies, add the herbs, sprinkle some ?nuts? on top, wrap it up, and send it out.  As we watched this one being made, we placed our order, and lo and behold, the one we had just watched was delivered to our table!  It was like they were expecting us!  I guess the reality is that they probably always have one ready to go because they have to make it so often …

First things first – how’d it look?  Well, it was wrapped in paper emblazoned with “Sampan” … I kind of like the old school craft paper they had used the very first time we went.  Furthermore, gone was the blue painter’s tape – they were now using masking tape.  Once again – give me the blue painter’s tape!  I don’t like change, damnit!

I opened up the paper and saw our victim.  While it looked similar to Chifa’s, the bread definitely appeared softer – likely because there was some squishing in the wrapping process and the warmth from the meat was softening the bread.  To be honest – I liked the bread at Chifa better because I like a nice hard outer crust – but if you want soft, then Sampan is the way to go.  But when it comes to flavor, there’s a slightly different story …  Sampan’s veggies and herbs and meat didn’t give me clear distinct notes, rather, a single harmonious flavor, including sour and sweet from the pickled vegetables, light heat from the sauce, a zing from the cilantro, and savory from the pork.  Yes, all the flavor components were the same as in Chifa, but they all worked together at once – there weren’t phases of evolving flavors, rather, one big flavor up front that eventually gave way to the individual components later on, after you swallowed.  It was so good.

After some thought, g and I felt that it was definitely better this time than at our last Sampan visit (and almost as good as our first).  Why?  Well, as we watched from our seat, we realized that the woman making the sandwich with “Fernandez” embroidered on her coat did an excellent job ensuring the right veggie:herb:meat:sauce ratio; this time was near perfect (maybe a little less sauce as our sandwich was a little drippy towards the end), but last time there just wasn’t enough meat.  Thank you Chef Fernandez!  You the woman!

We concluded our meal at Sampan with dessert – the chocolate banana “tart” in which a chocolate crust filled with bananas that were bruleed.  It was an excellent idea, but there were some flaws in execution.  The torch definitely burnt some of the exposed crust, so after the first accidental taste of burnt-bitterness (it’s hard to see the burnt parts as the chocolate crust was a dark brown), we had to seek out and remove the burnt areas.  Also, there could have been some other sauce or ganache or something to bring together the mushy bananas (they were mushy in a good way!) and the firm, somewhat dry, crust.  The waitress did recommend the ice cream to go with this dessert when we ordered, but we ignored her, and now we wished we hadn’t.  Like each time we’ve been to Sampan, the desserts are theoretically great, but taste only “good” – int his case, it wasn’t quite good enough to order again (but they keep rotating the dessert menu, so I’m sure I’ll find something new to order next time).

Conclusions:  Ok – super long post – let’s summarize …

1)  I prefer Sampan’s pork banh mi to Chifa’s primarily because of the bold, harmonious flavor that hit you from the very beginning.  While Chifa did have superior bread and more of a “freshness”, the pate subtracted from the dish, and perhaps adding more sauce and allowing the ingredients a chance to meld together (perhaps wrapped in some kraft paper with blue painters’ tape?) would help it?

2)  Chifa’s pork buns, however, are superior to Chifa’s banh mi – the way the flavors are integrated makes this dish hit you with flavor the same way Sampan’s bhan mi hits you – you get a nice strong, combined flavor up front that eventually gives way to subtler flavors later.

3)  Sampan’s banh mi vs. Chifa’s buns … gee … that’s really close …  I think it’d have to come down to what kind of mood you’re in … do you want bread or buns?  Ceviche (Chifa) or Brussels sprouts (Sampan)?  Personally, I think that Sampan might have the edge because the rest of the menu (or at least, the things we like to eat) are priced more aggressively.  We only wish they could execute the desserts a little better – there’s untapped potential there …

Epilogue:  As we got up to leave Sampan, g tried to direct my attention to the kitchen.  Eventually, she succeeded in doing so (I’m not too good with picking up on her non-verbal signals, and she didn’t want to say aloud, “Hey – look at the guy with the fish.”)  I looked over just in time to see Chef Forneas (the real person in charge at Sampan) pull out this huge fillet of fish (looked like yellowtail) and do some trimming.  He was showing another one of the kitchen staff how to cut the fish [I think].  Then, he attempted to slice off a piece, but was disappointed and left, hurriedly, to the back of the kitchen.  I was psyched because I thought he was going to get a sharp, Japanese knife (one of those single-beveled ones known as a yanagi) and show this fish a thing or two.  This was going to be so cool to see him do some sashimi slicing right in front of us (I’m a little obsessed with kitchen knives)!  After a few seconds, he then came back into sight … with one hand holding the same knife he was holding before … and the other holding a honing rod …  He then proceeded to hone his knife, Gordon Ramsey style, as he walked towards us (and the fish).  I counted the offenses …  He was going to slice this beautiful fillet not with a yanagi.  He was going to use a knife that he was clearly abusing with a honing rod (any knife that you should be using to cut sashimi should not be honed as such).  He appeared satisfied with this solution, as he walked with an air of pride in his honing technique.  With those three strikes, I had no choice but to leave in utter disgust.  Condoning such practices is abominable.  I fought back the urge to reach across the bar, snatch the fillet, and run out the door in an attempt to rescue the meat.  I vow to you here that I will order sashimi from Sampan nevermore

Written by afterdinnersneeze

19 April 2010 at 7:32am

Sampan gets 2 bells … maybe more later?

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t says: LaBan gave Sampan two bells.  I guess that’s not too shabby … LaBan’s overall critique: a very diverse menu, probably too diverse of a menu, but the food had lots of potential.  Some of the dishes had issues with balance of flavors, but others were spot on.  Overall, I think our stomachs and our wallets appreciated Sampan more than LaBan, so at the very least, we’re happy that the place isn’t going to be super-mobbed when we want to go (like every restaurant that gets 3+ bells).  g and I are also happy that one of our friends who recently dined there will be dreaming of the pork banh mi, like us.  g and I can’t wait to do a Sampan versus Chifa pork banh mi taste-off!

Written by afterdinnersneeze

12 April 2010 at 12:58pm

Posted in Happenings

Tagged with , ,

Food Fantasy: Is This Normal?

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g says: It’s been more than a week since we visited Sampan (search our blog for “sampan”) and I am still thinking about their pork banh mi. That expertly-crafted bundle of unpretentious perfection was wrapped in kraft paper with LOVE… and my belly wants more! It is rare for me to have this kind of experience at a fine dining establishment (i.e. to find something crave-able), but here I am.

t has a surprise dinner planned for my birthday the week after next, but we could change plans if I have a special request that night. So the question is, do I hold out for the surprise and eat someplace new (which I love to do), or do I celebrate my big 2-6 satisfying my new sandwich obsession?

Let’s take a vote – I am torn and need your input!

EDIT:  The poll ended in a tie!!  I guess we’ll just have to flip a coin!

Written by afterdinnersneeze

21 February 2010 at 11:41pm

Posted in Happenings

Tagged with ,

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