A friend tells me that when she dined at Samar, the waiter was forced to reach around and serve wine from the wrong side—an act for which he apologized in advance.
For those who aren't quite sure what I'm talking about, in formal settings waitstaff are supposed to approach each guest from a predictable angle, the old "serve from the left, clear from the right" adage—or is it the other way around? According to my friend, the waiter amended his apology with "the chef would kill me if he saw me doing this."
Well, Stephan Pyles is something of a taskmaster, though hardly a violent one. Like so many people with finely honed skills, the famed chef and restaurateur expects others to meet his standards. Back when he oversaw the kitchen at Dragonfly on a consulting basis, for example, food service slacked noticeably on nights when he was away.
Samar Papadum trio $12 Potato and chorizo $12 Endive salad $6 Chicken shish kebab $7 Almond gazpacho $7 Butter chicken $7 Naan with dips $12 Crab fritters $8 Pumpkin kofte $9 Tiger prawn $9 Persian fried chicken $8 Grilled chiles $7 Fish curry $9
These days, Pyles is spending quite a bit of time watching the goings-on at Samar, his new Pan-Mediterranean-Indian small plates venue on Ross, just up from his namesake destination restaurant. Perhaps as a result, the kitchen is clicking like a long-established hotspot despite being open for just six weeks.
Chicken shish kebab first presents a discreet wash of apricot, which very quickly smoothes into a sweet-nutty flavor. Then a savory side emerges, challenged by a spicy heat. All of this takes place in a matter of seconds, an assault on the senses that makes chunks of tender white meat almost superfluous.
Crab fritters sit on a bed of celeriac, lemon and Parmesan. By itself, the chunky salad is fresh, though tipping dangerously on the edge of unpleasantly tart. When taken with one of the golden fritters, however, all the sharpness falls away, and you perceive natural flavors zig-zagging between light, sweet, acidic and rich.
This is the sort of touch that made Pyles famous—that all-too-rare ability to make ingredients dance, the command of technique and culture that allows him to take something and coax out of it more than was there before.
Samar is the result of the chef's many travels. Most recently he's roamed through Lebanon, Morocco and Turkey. Thus you find some of the most intense labneh you'll find in this hemisphere. Strained in house, the thick and sour yogurt appears alongside hummus when you order naan. It also holds forth in an endive and fruit salad, an exact copy of a dish Pyles tried in Istanbul—only he gives two slices of extraordinarily juicy orange the brûlée treatment, flaming on a veneer of sugar that softens the labneh. While in Spain, the chef dined at El Buli, regarded as the world's top restaurant. Here he encountered reverse spherification, a process that captures the juices of an ingredient such as green olives or fresh grapes, runs it through sodium alginate and causes it to form a skin. Chefs can then shape the mass into its original form.
"Honestly, I didn't know what the hell it was," Pyles said of his first experience with this process at El Buli, when he bit into what he thought was an olive and met with a burst of liquid. "But now I don't want to do a representation of cooking in Spain without incorporating some of it." He also shows off a few foams and a sous vide dish or two, just to keep in touch with global trends.
Reverse spherification shows up in a bowl of almond gazpacho, a very straightforward serving enhanced by a couple lobes of converted grapes. The effect is interesting, though hardly worth the five-minute (it just seemed that long) sales pitch by our waiter. If I have one gripe about Samar, it's the constant interruption from an army of servers hell-bent on finding out if you enjoyed the dish, if everything's OK, if we need anything on the menu explained further...geez. If they weren't so damn friendly about it, Pyles wouldn't have to kill anyone. Patrons would take things into their own hands, leaving the chef to sort out the bodies.
Service isn't bad, mind you, just overattentive. The bright spot, for me, was spotting my waitress nemesis from Nick & Sam's Grill, now working at Samar. Of course, this meant I couldn't sneak in without being recognized. But I did get into a nice exchange about Liverpool's slump and the World Cup draw. Always fun when you make a crack about Liverpool's Stephan Gerrard and the waitress growls, "if I wasn't working I'd take you outside and..."
Takes a moment for propriety to catch up when English soccer is the topic of conversation.
There are 10 menu items in each section. Spanish dishes include the overwrought reverse spherification thing, as well as a simple plate of grilled chiles dusted in smoked sea salt. Another basic recipe—a peasant-style hash—includes some of the best chorizo you'll ever try...and an overcooked egg. Flip the page and you'll find Eastern Mediterranean fare, such as the endive salad and that amazing kebab. The final part—the Indian dishes—are chef Vijay Sadhu's forte.
Beautiful butter chicken rests in a silken sauce. A trio of papadum cakes are rolled into cones and filled with salad, from a simple lentil to the spicy pomegranate I could barely pry from my guest's hands. Then there's fish curry that consists of a thick halibut fillet covered in a pungent, creamy coconut milk sauce that cannot contain its chile-fueled mean streak. According to Pyles, they tested this dish several times, with disappointing results. Finally the chef said, "Vijay, I had much spicier food than this in India."
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"Oh," Sadhu replied, "I thought I was preparing it for American palates." Problem solved.
The menu looks small, Pyles admits. With desserts included, however, "there are 40 items—and those aren't simple things to prepare." Indeed, despite the emphasis on small portions, there's no wasted effort here. The most memorable item for me was a side that came with two tiger prawns. Yes, the shellfish were fine—but who really cares when it's surrounded by strings of julienned okra, fried to the near impossible point when crispy and chewy come together but don't cross. The texture, therefore, is intricate (an odd thing to say when describing okra). Seasoned with chaat masala, it develops intense, stratified flavors—feisty ginger, sweet pepper from amchur and a series of earthier spices.
So six weeks in, and Samar is already turning out memories.
Samar 2100 Ross Ave., 214-922-9922. Open 5 p.m.-midnight Monday-Saturday (bar open until 2 a.m.). $$$