By Richard Foss (Richard@RichardFoss.com)
A few eateries have been on my “must visit” list for years, and some of them stay there – there are so many alluring restaurants on the Westside that I’ll never hit them all.
Sam’s By The Beach in Santa Monica was one of them until this week, when my brother bought a gift certificate at a charity auction. When he invited me, I was delighted – I had seen notices of wine dinners at Sam’s for some time and the menus always looked intriguing.
First thing to know when you go there – don’t bother looking for a parking spot, just valet the car. Street parking is nonexistent, and the lot that is marked for Sam’s is their valet lot. The six bucks is a bargain compared to the wasted time looking for other options.
We entered the modern pretty restaurant and I noticed Arabic touches in the décor, like the ornate beaded lamps that hung over the window. The visual style fits the menu; owner Sam Elias is originally from a town near Damascus, and a few Syrian items pop up among the pastas, seafood, and other items on the wide-ranging menu.
One of these arrived at our table a few minutes after we sat down – a complimentary starter of roasted eggplant rolled around goat cheese, tomato and basil, topped with balsamic vinegar. It was a nice welcome, and the most traditional item we tried all evening.
We had decided on a tasting dinner and told Sam our dietary restrictions, which in our case can be summarized that we eat everything. We then sat back to see what Sam and his chef sent out, which was based on our conversation and on what looked great at the market that morning.
The first course was seared discs of Yellowfin tuna with green apple, avocado, arugula and heirloom tomatoes. Seared-lightly peppered tuna with a gentle Asian garlic sauce is a standard item in contemporary restaurants, but, in this case, it was sushi-grade fish, and the avocado and green apple in the salad elevated the dish. It was served with house-baked rosemary olive bread with a dipping sauce of olive oil and zataar, the Syrian condiment made with oregano, thyme, sumac, dried sesame and salt.
We continued with homemade raviolis stuffed with zucchini blossom and ricotta cheese in a sauce of porcini mushrooms, yellow squash, roasted tomatoes and a dash of dried mint. A vegetarian could make a great meal from these two starters alone – the flavors were fresh and varied.
Next came a Spanish-style lamb chorizo risotto that Sam called “all the flavors of the Mediterranean in one dish.” A few may have been left out, but most of the bases were covered – spinach, tomato, feta, and herbs were mixed with rice in a sauce that included lamb stock and Meyer lemon, with a dash of sweet and tart flavor to balance the lamb richness.
Up to now, my brother and I had the same meals, but Sam couldn’t decide which main course we should try, so he gave me duck in port wine sauce with cherries, while my brother was served Turkish-style smoked and roasted quail stuffed with green apples and goat cheese.
We shared, and I preferred his – port sauces tend to be sweet, and though the meat was very good and tender, it was overwhelmed by the sauce. Had I known what was coming, I would have asked for it on the side and used a small amount. The quail was in a sauce that I liked much more – a simple rosemary-tomato with a bit of onion, a translucent addition that added to the flavors of the meat and stuffing. Both plates included a medley of vegetables that included asparagus, squash, roasted golden beet and baby carrot.
The tasting dinner we had ordered usually comes with a bottle of house wine, but Sam offered the option of short pours of several wines that would accompany our meals. We seized on this and were delighted by his adept pairing – my favorite was a Moshin Pinot Noir that was poured with the risotto, but several were worthy of further study.
We finished with desserts that encapsulated the multicultural character of the place – New Orleans bread pudding with chocolate and crème anglaise, and a rich Arabic-style custard served over crisp shredded phyllo dough.
Our dinner was memorable, and we will be back with our wives – we’ll have to bring them after they read this review and find out about the dinner they missed.
At $75 each for food and wine, tasting meals aren’t something we’ll do every day, but for a special occasion the delightful food and service are a bargain. One can dine much less expensively at Sam’s, but if you have an occasion that demands a top-quality evening, you deserve this experience.
Sam’s By The Beach is at 108 W. Channel Road in Santa Monica. Open Tue-Sun 5:30 p.m. – 10:30 p.m., full bar, valet parking. Corkage $23, wheelchair access good. Menu at samsbythebeach.com. 310-230-9100.