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NIP AND TUCK

for The Brooklyn Paper
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We almost walked past Sam’s. The faded yellow sign with red letters that spell Coffee Sho (the p’s been missing for years), and the hand-painted gold "Sam’s" on the front window promised a diner.

But young locals sat outside, rocking sleeping babies in carriages and drinking wine. Glancing through the window we spotted signs advertising meatball heroes and tuna fish sandwiches for $4.50. But inside, customers sat around the six mismatched tables eating seafood stews and slicing into rare steaks. And the aroma: meat grilling, fish simmering, bread warming - no coffee shop ever smelled that good.

Sam’s, soon to be renamed Sammy’s Brooklyn, is a humble diner by day, ambitious bistro by night. For the past 13 years owner and chef Sarwat Samir (who adopted the moniker Sammy after one too many customers called him "So what?") has kept the staffs of nearby Long Island College Hospital and the Cobble Hill Nursing Home fed and caffeinated.

Three months ago, Kevin Moore, a caterer and former restaurateur, persuaded Samir to extend his hours through dinner. (Neil Ganic, the former owner of La Bouillabaisse on Atlantic Avenue, has signed on as a short-term consultant, hence the seafood-heavy menu.)

Moore and Samir gave the space a much-needed makeover, ripping out the long deli counter and covering the dark walls with light-colored paneling. The space still retains a bit of its scruffy Cinderella-before-the-glass-slipper feeling - the floor is linoleum and the paneling has a Little Italy social club ambience. Yet few places possess the quirky charm of Sammy’s Brooklyn, and fewer kitchens send out the kind of assured dishes that are becoming the bistro’s trademark.

The B.Y.O.B and $3 corking fee are two more reasons to recommend it.

Sammy’s Brooklyn continues to act as a diner Mondays through Saturdays, from 6 am until 3 pm. Then, after the ketchup and hot sauce bottles are stashed in the kitchen, the candy rack is covered with a shelf, and the lights dim, dinner at Sammy’s Brooklyn begins.

The menu on the blackboard was propped up on a chair near my table. I watched as an appetizer of wild mushroom salad was carried past, perfuming the air around us, followed by a plate of goat cheese crowned with deep red, summer tomatoes. We settled on two seafood appetizers: a sublime crab cake and sprightly tuna carpaccio.

Moore’s crab cake is exactly what a crab cake should be: a loosely bound disc the size of a saucer, heavy on the crab and unadulterated with diced peppers. The appetizer is lightly seared until crusty on the outside. Minus the breading and heavy seasoning, I could savor the fresh, clean taste of the crabmeat. A simple salad of mixed lettuces and a slice of lemon were the crab’s only plate-mates.

Chefs can learn something from Moore’s under-adorned presentations. A tuna carpaccio, another starter too often fussed with in bistros, began with a base of two large, thin slices of mild, raw tuna. Over the top of the fish was drizzled a bit of olive oil and lemon juice and then a few capers sprinkled on top with chopped red onion.

Small mounds of tartly dressed, tender young greens sat near the fish. The dish was a celebration of fine ingredients.

Just back from a vacation in Maine, the fish entrees were reminiscent of the kind of homey New England-style cooking I enjoyed up North - but with more finesse. An oyster stew held plump, tender oysters in a light, briny sauce touched with cream. A couple of wedges of tomato sweetened the broth; a handful of spinach and a few strands of pasta adding a nutty taste and soft texture. Slivers of fresh ginger gave the dish crunch and heat.

A seafood cioppino held its own next to the oyster stew. Sweet halves of large sea scallops, mussels and shrimp were enhanced with a light, wine-laced broth. A bit of fresh dill added a herbaceous note. Aromas of the fish cooking were the inspiration for my all-seafood meal, but there are a few meat dishes on the menu - like grilled pork loin and a crisp-skinned grilled chicken breast - that made other diners happy. The man dining across from us sighed over his rare filet mignon and offered forkfuls of mashed potatoes to his friends.

"It’s great," he murmured more than once during dinner.

Moore delivered the chocolate pate dessert, then lingered near our table waiting for our reaction. Chocolate pates, or any heavy, dense chocolate dessert usually leave me cold - too one-dimensional - but this pate was something special. Made with bittersweet chocolate, it had a tart, almost winy edge. On the plate, the pate resembled a thin slice of coal, but instead of a dead weight in the mouth, it was silky. A scattering of crushed pistachio nuts added a welcome diversion from the creaminess.

The heavy crust on a pedestrian peach tart was the meal’s only disappointment.

If I haven’t convinced you that a trip to Sammy’s Brooklyn would be worth your time and money then allow me to mention Barbara.

The bistro’s lone waitress, Barbara speaks in a voice so soft that diners lean in to hear her. She waits until a customer tastes their dish before asking if they’re enjoying it, and deposits a slice of lemon, or a fresh napkin on the table before anyone asks. Cafe owners tell me that finding friendly, but not overly effusive, waitstaff who know how to cater to their clientele is hell. If that’s the case, then a bidding war over Barbara should be breaking out right now.

My advice: Go to Sammy’s Brooklyn while it’s still the cute little place beloved by a few. Waiting for a table is such a drag.

 

Sammy’s Brooklyn (391 Henry St. between Congress and Warren streets in Cobble Hill) accepts cash only. Dinner entrees: $11.95-$13.95. No reservations accepted. For information, call (718) 625-8150.

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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