News and Reviews: The Mercury News

The Mercury News

Sam's formula is simple seafood dishes, carefully
prepared with excellent ingredients.”

"three stars"

Aleta Watson, Mercury News
June, 2007

From the dining room at Sam's Chowder House, the view stretches 180 degrees, taking in the graceful arc of Half Moon Bay from Pillar Point to Miramontes Point. Below, fishing boats work their way into the nearby harbor and surfers ply world-class waves at Mavericks.

No restaurant menu can hope to trump a vista like this. Complicated dishes and innovative flavor combinations would be lost on diners mesmerized by the ever-shifting panorama of sea and sky. Sam's formula is simple seafood dishes, carefully prepared with excellent ingredients.

Lobster rolls ($17.95) here are stuffed with big chunks of sweet, juicy lobster tossed in melted butter. Clam chowder ($5.95 a cup/$8.95 a bowl), thickened only with potatoes and cream, sings of briny shellfish. No filler obscures the pure flavor of lump blue crab, lightly coated with panko crumbs and fried until golden and crisp, in the exemplary crab cakes ($10.95) served with a crunchy radish salad on the side.

If it all sounds a bit East Coast, that's because owner Paul Shenkman hopes to recreate the fish houses of his childhood on the Jersey shore. Shenkman made his name during two decades in Half Moon Bay as the former owner of Pasta Moon and, later, Cetrella Bistro, upscale restaurants with a Mediterranean bent. He retained his taste for chowder and lobster rolls in casual places by the sea, though. And the vacant building on Cabrillo Highway, formerly occupied by the Anchorage, beckoned.

The low building, which had no windows facing the water, was rebuilt with a sweep of glass on the coast side, giving virtually every seat in the dining room a stunning view. Outdoor spaces were expanded, too, creating sheltered patios with fire pits and a lineup of blue and white Adirondack chairs - ideal for lazy hours watching the sea with a glass of wine and half a dozen Miyagi oysters ($1.75 each) at hand.

Yet the new 180-seat Sam's restaurant looks like it's been around for years with its hardwood floors, recycled wainscoting and laminate topped tables partnered with well-used captain's chairs. Openwork metal struts span the low ceiling and a Swedish fireplace warms the dining room. Vintage black and white photos of East Coast fish shacks hang behind the receptionist's desk. The atmosphere is relaxed and friendly. Servers have the look and air of college students working a summer job - what they lack in polish, they make up in enthusiasm.

Executive Chef Lewis Rossman, an East Coast native who came with Shenkman from Cetrella, has created a menu that ranges far beyond typical chowder house fare. Shrimp cocktail ($9.95) and fried fish platters ($15.95-$22.95) are on offer, to be sure, but so are ceviche ($9.50), baked crab and artichoke dip ($11.95), lobster pot pie ($22), and expertly grilled fish ($18.95-$22.95) with a choice of five sauces. For the fish-phobic, there are burgers ($10.95), hanger steak ($18.95-$23.95) and a half chicken grilled under a brick ($18.95).

The bar serves a full line of cocktails, from the classic Manhattan ($7.50) to the fanciful frozen Devil's Slide ($8) made with Bailey's Irish Cream, Kahlua, vodka and ice cream.

You really know you're in California, though, when you get to the sophisticated wine list filled with good, fish-friendly wines at moderate prices. I'm a fan of the crisp 2005 J.L. Wolf Wachenheimer reisling from Germany's Dr. Loosen ($9 a glass), the tropical fruit flavors nicely balanced by citrusy acid for a long, clean finish.

Every meal begins with a pleasantly chewy pain d'epi, a decoratively shaped baguette, from Bay Bread. From there, diners can go the traditional route with the excellent crab cakes and clam chowder or take a global approach with ceviche and the sesame-bathed ahi poke ($12.95), ruby-colored cubes of impeccably fresh tuna piled in an old-fashioned glass ice cream dish with strips of fried wonton. Oysters Rockefeller ($9.95) is a good choice, a quartet of fat-bellied Hama Hama oysters baked in their shells on a bed of fresh spinach with a golden layer of crisp panko crumbs on top.

Outsize butterflied prawns were the highlight of the fried seafood combination platter ($22.95) on my visit. Sam's keeps the breading light and oil fresh so the flavor of the shrimp shines through. The cod filet on the plate was moist and flaky, but the calamari rings were pale, bland and unimpressive.

A large bowl of almost delicate cioppino ($25.95) was filled to the brim with clams, mussels, prawns, local rock cod and Dungeness crab legs. The tomato-laced broth, sparked with a touch of spicy harissa, did not overshadow the shellfish. Still, I missed the usual assertive personality of the Bay Area specialty.

Perhaps the best example of the Sam's approach was the wild California King salmon ($21.95), a perfectly grilled filet with a crusty exterior and luscious, flamingo pink flesh. It was great fish - in season - treated with respect. Intricate preparations or elaborate sauces would have detracted from its incomparable flavor. So, order the mango salsa or puttanesca sauce from the menu if you must, but get it on the side.

House-made desserts tend toward the nostalgic - the soft-serve ice cream ($2.50) that Shenkman recalls from his youth, floats ($4.95) made with intense Thomas Kemper root beer, ice cream sandwiches ($5.95) with homemade dark chocolate cookies and chocolate ice cream rolled in pistachios.

For more adult tastes, Key lime pie ($6.50) is pleasant with its creamy texture and bright flavor. But don't be tempted by the affogato even if you need caffeine for the long drive home. The espresso was dull and the vanilla ice cream icy rather than creamy.

A far sweeter ending to a meal at Sam's would be a cognac, sipped while sitting in one of the Adirondack chairs, reveling in that stunning view. Just remember to bring a jacket.

Reviews are conducted anonymously. The Mercury News pays for all meals.