A Fells Point pan-Asian restaurant impresses
Glowing with warm light, Sam's Kid pulls you, like a bewitched insect, into its mod Fells Point storefront. Dazzled by white walls, a plump purple sofa, the clean lines of blond wood tables, you take your seat only to be made dizzy again by the menu in front of you, which lists dishes with impossibly melodic sounding names like dan dan or kowloon or kway teow. And you quickly realize that in a neighborhood where there are many small-plate and tapas choices, Sam's Kid offers something different. What else you'll find after consuming a meal as delightful as it is affordable, is that Sam's Kid is also worth a return or three. Days later, I'm still thinking about my meal, and what I'm going to try next time if I can pull myself away from what I already sampled. Considering the amount I eat out, this doesn't happen nearly as often as it should.
Sam's Kid offers a gamut of Asian dishes (Japanese, Thai, Indonesian) from small plates and sushi to salads, soups, and "big plates." You'll find familiar favorites like dumplings, tempura, and summer, spring, and egg rolls on the menu, but there are also less standard offerings, like sautéed green beans ($5.50) that tease with an earthy black-bean sauce that masks a slow-burning spicy fire, or the homey, comforting squares of Agedashi tofu ($5.50), fried to toasty brown and resting in a bowl of brightly fresh-tasting soy broth spiked with ginger.
In some restaurants, skewers are afterthoughts, dry pieces of meat or seafood served with a perfunctory sauce. Sam's Kid's skewer combination plate ($8.95) with grilled shrimp, tofu, and yakitori chicken, are not, particularly with the peanut sauce, which is rich but balanced.
And that's the key. Nearly everything we tried here was a little brighter in flavor, a little more subtle, a little more balanced. Sam's Kid's sushi menu sticks to the basics-salmon, shrimp, tuna, eel, scallop, and various vegetarian fillings-but the crunchy eel roll ($6) was outstanding for the freshness and interplay of textures and flavors (crunchy, salty, nutty, soft) that distinguish good sushi from the merely competent. Indonesian fried rice ($13.50), a large plate, was countless steps above than anything we've ever carried out in a cardboard takeout carton, beginning with sizeable, pink-fleshed mussels and long strips of calamari and ending with a confetti of fried shallots scattered over the top. If the crispy chicken crepes on green salad ($10.95) fell short of expectation, the concept was still intriguing: creamy chicken sandwiched between spring-roll wrapper "crepes," cut into triangles, grilled-cheese style, and served atop greens dressed with sesame dressing. We found the dish bland, however, and at the end of the meal, when chef/owner Andrea Rani emerged from the kitchen to ask us, as she asked each table, how our dinner was, she was particularly concerned about the crepes. "My taste is a little off tonight. I think they're missing something," she admitted, nailing it before we even offered our two cents.
The dan dan ($7.95, plus $1 for broth), an embarrassment of ground pork napped in peanut sauce and a broth so savory, unctuous, and yes, a little salty, was missing nothing, and we would have licked the bowl had we been the only ones in the dining room. Although the dan dan is listed under "noodle soups" along with seafood curry and Korean chili beef for reasons I still don't understand, the broth must be ordered for an additional dollar ("You definitely want to order the broth," our server recommended.) Spring for it.
Desserts at Sam's Kid are limited to banana tempura ($4.25) and babka pudding ($5.25), and while the latter has nothing at all to do with Asian food, it's lovely, chocolate-filled, and a surprisingly light ending to the meal.
The quibbles here are few. I wish there was a better drinks list, though kudos to Sam's Kid for offering several sakes and updated versions of the fruity cocktails that used to grace every Chinese restaurant's menu. But food this interesting deserves a better beer and wine list than what's currently available: a draft of the moment, several bottled beers, and wines that are large-format, mass-market brands you find at art openings or taverns that serve mostly beer.
I've also heard some grumblings about service at Sam's Kid, how people were made to wait for tables or reservations were ignored, and despite two levels of dining space, I can see how a new restaurant that's received good buzz could be overwhelmed. The service we experienced on a not very busy Thursday night, however, was nothing short of professional, timely, and courteous (we did have a reservation).
Sam's Kid, the restaurant, is named for Rani, who is Sam's kid and who learned her culinary trade at the side of her late father. There's no question the restaurant's name is a sweet homage to Rani's father, but a meal there proves that the food is an even better one.