Restaurant Review: Sampan

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Chester and I continued Restaurant Week(s) with dinner at Sampan in Midtown Village, which offers a contemporary spin on traditional Asian street foods. The menu is wide-ranging and features interpretations of dishes from all over the continent, including China, Korea, Japan, and Vietnam.

For Restaurant Week, Sampan is offering its seven course chef’s tasting menu, plus dessert, for $35 per person. Your entire party agrees on which dishes to order from the various sections of the menu: two from the small plates section and one from each of the satay, meat, cold and hot, fish, and sides sections. This was a great way for us to sample a variety of dishes, since we were finding it pretty tough to narrow things down.

The first few plates that were brought out were pretty tiny. We joked that we might have to stop at the diner on the way home. But, towards the end of the meal, the dishes got progressively larger and more filling. Some dishes fared better than others in terms of taste, execution, and presentation.

We sampled:

  • The “Philly Cheesesteak”—I think this has appeared on a few of those “must try” dishes in Philly lists, but it was just okay. It was kind of like cheesesteak bruschetta—a crispy bao bun is topped with shredded short rib, shallot, sriracha, and shredded provolone cheese. It was a creative concept, but I think that it would have been better if a rib eye was used, instead of the short rib.

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  • Kobe Beef Satay—This was also a “miss.” Although the beef was well seasoned and paired well with the apricot dipping sauce, the meat was way overdone and none of the rich fattiness that makes Kobe so wonderful was there.
  • Crab Wonton Taco—A crispy wonton shell holds a refreshing combination of crab salad, avocado, cilantro, and pickled shallots. This was one of the best executed, tastiest, and creative concepts that we tried.
  • Pho Dumplings—Another well executed concept. Four small dumplings were filled with short rib and served in a pho broth. When you spooned a dumpling into your mouth, you got all of the rich flavors of a traditional pho soup in one tiny bite.
  • Lobster Stir-fry—The chef wasn’t stingy with the lobster by any means, as there was a chunk of it in each bite. I would have chosen a different kind of starch to accompany the dish. The egg noodles that came with it were a bit burnt and clumped together. I’m not sure if this is what they were going for, but it was a bit tricky to eat, and just looked sloppy.
  • Crispy Brussel Sprouts—I don’t like brussel sprouts, normally, but everyone who has been to Sampan seems to rave about them, so I decided to step out of my comfort zone and try them. I promptly told Chester that we could have brussel sprouts all the time if they were prepared this way. They are served in a slightly salty, spicy fish sauce and cooked until they are just a bit soft, but not mushy (that would be gross). The puffed rice gives them a bit of extra crunch.
  • Pork with Pineapple Rice—this was the largest dish, and I’m glad it came at the end when we weren’t totally full yet. The pork was perfectly cooked—juicy and tender, with just a bit of pink at the center and the sweet pineapple rice was a nice complement.

It seemed odd to have something as quintessentially American as soft-serve ice cream in little sugar cones finish off the meal, but I enjoyed the featured flavor choices: chocolate peanut butter and vanilla grape jelly. They must have known I was coming that night. They use some pretty good quality ingredients to get the flavors just right, particularly for the grape, which actually tasted like the fruit and not some artificial syrup.

In the end, we left very satisfied. The kitchen staff did a great job of pacing the meal appropriately and staggering the larger dishes to preserve our appetites. The service from the wait staff was friendly, but a bit uneven at times (a long wait sometimes for drinks from the bar, for example), but the restaurant was packed and it was a Friday during Restaurant Week, so that is to be expected.

The interior of the restaurant is dark, sleek, and pretty, which creates a casual, if a bit trendy, atmosphere. The centerpieces of the main dining areas are the color-shifting walls (a la Stephen Starr’s Pod Restaurant in University City) against which are placed the silhouettes of bare trees. You know what was really weird though? The bathrooms. Each one is its own individual stall, but the weird thing is that the pipe in the audio from movies. They were playing clips from one of my favorite movies, “Napoleon Dynamite” (“Hey Napoleon, what did you do last summer again?” I told you, I spent it with my uncle in Alaska hunting wolverines!”). It was amusing, but really just weird to have people talking above your head while you are in the bathroom.

Sampan also has a small outdoor patio—the Graffiti Bar—tucked into the rear of the restaurant, that offers a rotating selection of cocktails and $2 appetizers during happy hour. I would gladly return for that to sample some more of the creative dishes on the menu. There are definitely some things that I would not order again, but I’m confident that there are some other stand-outs on the menu that I didn’t have a chance to try on this visit.

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