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December 28, 2006

Talk of the Table heading

New Sammy's: A Destination


Last winter, the chef at a Melbourne, Australia restaurant began serving dishes so revolutionary that by spring the food world was abuzz. Then the online magazine eGullet uncovered a scandal. The dishes were not his inventions, but had been copied from two cutting-edge restaurants, WD-50 in New York and Alinea in Chicago. The scandal spread when it was discovered that a Tokyo restaurant was serving an avant-garde menu nearly identical to one in Washington, D.C. Not merely inspired by the originals, these dishes were lifted wholly, including presentation and serving plates, from restaurants where the copycat New Sammy's Cowboy Bistro logochefs had worked.

As an idea of the level of intricacy, one entree featured prawns pureed with an enzyme called "transglutiminase," extruded into noodles, which were cooked and served with smoked yoghurt, paprika and nori (paper-thin sheets of dried seaweed).

In the rarefied world of great restaurants there is a high premium on originality, to the point, sometimes, of excess. A combination of unusual ingredients, unique preparation methods and spectacular presentations are almost a necessity, if you are charging $200-$500 per diner (not including wine). Thus, there is a growing tendency to treat dishes as proprietary secrets. One restaurant, Moto in Chicago, is now filing copyrights on several of its processes.

But original cooking need not use arcane alchemy. In fact, two of the great original restaurants in the world are in the Pacific Northwest, a scant day's drive from each other, yet in different galaxies, as regards their cuisine. And both are equidistant from Humboldt County.

The French Laundry in Yountville, Calif. -- which has for years been considered the finest restaurant in the U.S., if not the world -- has elegant, spectacular, whimsical and fanciful creations. It offers a 9-course tasting menu for $200 (including gratuity). Reservations, accepted only two months in advance, are notoriously difficult to get. Its chef and owner, Thomas Keller, is a legend, brilliantly profiled in Michael Rhulman's book, The Soul of A Chef. Ambiance and service are both elegant and welcoming. A typical dish is "Oysters and Pearls": "Sabayon" of Pearl Tapioca with Beau Soleil Oysters and Russian Sevruga Caviar.

To the north of Yountville (and less than four hours from Humboldt) is a restaurant that, like The French Laundry, has been responsible for two of the 10 best meals we've had.

New Sammy's Cowboy Bistro is the creation of Charlene Rollins, a chef of surpassing brilliance, and Vernon Rollins, a skilled sommelier. Together they have crafted a tiny idiosyncratic place in which all other elements are subordinated to food and wine.

By "all other elements," I refer to decor ("quaint" is the consensus opinion), ambiance (homey), service (they've loyally retained a cadre of friendly but clueless young waitresses) and convenience (there's a shell of a remodel, plus a new large, lighted sign outside, but we spent 10 minutes wandering the unfinished exterior before finally ferreting out the virtually invisible door to the restaurant, in a recessed corner. You have to be really determined.)

Yet within this low-ceilinged warren of tiny, cramped, eccentrically decorated cubicles, they function magnificently. If you are here for the food, welcome to Valhalla. If you seek to learn proportions of the Cabernet Franc grape in wines of the Bordeaux region, or illuminate the chalky terroir of a Lustau Sherry, you will be educated as well as delighted. But if you come expecting a formal dining experience (and The French Laundry is precisely that), you will be disappointed. Sammy's is, as the name suggests, a rural restaurant, and the rigors of fine dining are not to be found.

Part of its unique quality is its size -- just six tables. To make the economics of this work, while still fulfilling the gourmet expectations associated with a great restaurant, boggles the mind. Somehow Charlene does it. Endlessly inventive, and serving only organic (and mostly local) food, she creates small masterpieces, four or five each of first and second courses and desserts.

There is a refreshing simplicity to even complex-flavored dishes. Fall fruit salad with pistachios, radicchio, watercress, arugula and grilled spicy garlicky pimenton-marinated prawns was far better than the sum of its parts. In this case, the in-shell shrimps had absorbed the delicate bitterness of Spanish paprika and sugar of garlic before being cold-smoked, then charred over a hot wood fire; I've never had prawns so addictive. The fruits included pear, fig, quince, pomegranate and elderberries. Arugula, which in less capable hands can dominate a dish, was here a subtle herbal note.

Individual lasagne with five cheeses, lacinato kale and sweetmeat squash puree, with sautéed spinach and shitakes had just three "handkerchiefs" of housemade pasta, forming an inch-high tower. There was no wasted space for bland fillings like ricotta; every bite was bursting with complexity, lacinato kale and winter squash competing with the tangy bouquet of cheeses. And of course, no tomato sauce -- instead, a lemony reduction completed the spectrum of flavors. I am not a fan of shiitake mushrooms, which for me have scant flavor to go with the chewy texture, but these, marinated in port and sautéed with spinach, provided perfect contrast.

A careful perusal of the small menu shows ingenious repetition of components. Since the restaurant uses exclusively organic ingredients (indeed, until recently, they grew most of their produce), waste is a key issue. With just seven tables, they can't afford to limit many ingredients to a single dish, so each evening may find the same ones in different formats.

Grilled boneless/skinless duck breast with a polenta cake, lacinato kale and black-eyed peas, and balsamic vinegar sauce -- cooked rare, as requested. The meat and dark sweet-sour of the sauce were perfect complements. But the "polenta cake" was two miracles: On the bottom, a thick disc of the creamiest-ever polenta -- my reverse engineering hypothesizes it was made with coarse cornmeal, but cream instead of milk -- topped with a dome that was a flan of foie gras. The delicate duck liver flavor brought together all the elements. And the accompaniment of kale and black-eyed peas reminded us that this is, after all, a consciously rural bistro, removing any taint of pretension a foie gras soufflé might have suggested. It says, "Hey, we're just folks here. Have some greens and black-eyed peas!"

Huckleberry and strawberry sherbets layered in an almond meringue torte, with blackberry sauce. A single slice of the chilled terrine lay atop a generous swirl of sauce. Thicker layers of strawberry were sandwiched between dark huckleberry, with the meringue a paper-thin shell. Bits of almond were scattered on the plate, like stray crumbs. Every element had a distinctive flavor and color, combining in harmonious four-part polyphony.

Like all such restaurants at the highest level, there are surprises not on the menu. The first course was preceded by an amuse bouche -- a tiny egg cup filled with subtle curry cauliflower porridge, enlivened by a swirl of lime cream. Also, a collection of post-dessert cookies (among them a square of Meyer lemon jelly and a simple, perfect cornmeal sugar cookie). Tea was unsurprisingly custom-prepared: Mint tea had chopped fresh mint leaves; lemon ginger was just-minced ginger with fresh-squeezed lemon juice.

Discussing the wines would be presumptuous, but all ranges of foreign and domestic varietals were represented, at prices ranging from inexpensive to let's-not-go-there. A half-dozen pages are included with the menu, but there's another entire book of rare and special wines.

It is no accident that the Rollinses have escaped the competitive flamboyance of other restaurants at their level, retaining the unpretentious rural quality despite constantly stretching its envelope. Improbably, despite their small size and lofty standards, they have managed to sustain reasonable prices. There is a $40 prix fixe meal, which on our visit was chilled leek and beet salad, grilled escolar (deep sea mackerel) and choice of dessert. But the a la carte menu is not much more expensive: First courses average $11, seconds $26 and desserts $9, less than one might pay at a half-dozen Humboldt establishments.

This is a true "destination" restaurant, and if gossip among knowledgeable food writers and chefs continues to spread, one that will soon be in the "impossible-to-get-reservations" category. Having visited Chez Panisse and The French Laundry in their early years, I want to recommend New Sammy's to my readers before that happens.

New Sammy's Cowboy Bistro: 2210 South Pacific Highway. Talent, Ore. 541-535-2779 (Note: Ashland is right next door, and the restaurant is often booked a month ahead during Shakespeare Festival season.)

McKinleyville foodie Joseph Byrd teaches songwriting at College of the Redwoods.


your Talk of the Table comments, recipes and ideas to Bob Doran.


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