The logical sequel to Biscuit, a successful,
southern-style barbecue restaurant in Prospect Heights that serves
biscuits, fried chicken and ribs, would be a spin-off of the
first, with, perhaps the addition of a wood-lined pit for slow
Owners Maio Martinez and Josh Cohen see it differently.
Instead of another down-home eatery, they opened Sample on Smith Street in October, a restaurant without a kitchen (there’s a microwave oven behind the bar for reheating) and without cooking.
Using as a prototype Quimet, a long-standing restaurant and bar in Madrid that specializes in conservas (conserved foods either canned, smoked, jarred or in some way preserved, Martinez and Cohen offer a menu of savory small bites - call it antipasti, tapas or meze - sourced worldwide. The "cooking" consists of slicing, simple plating, the sprinkling of sea salt and occasionally warming something in the microwave.
"This is the way Josh and I love to eat; a bit of this and that, all delicious," says Martinez.
Sure, you say, you can open a can in your own kitchen.
But it’s doubtful you’ll find the kind of global treats that Martinez and Cohen have tracked down, or the eclectic wines - 20 by the glass, a sublime sake, exquisite port and dessert liquors - selected by master sommelier Roger Dagorn, of Manhattan’s Chanterelle restaurant.
The room is long and narrow with a tiled floor and stools along the bar. Painted a soft cocoa with neutral accents, the decor makes an attractive, unobtrusive backdrop to the vivid flavors of the food.
The menu is divided into five categories: meat, fish, vegetables, cheese and a small selection of desserts. A couple sharing four different meat dishes, without wine, can expect to enjoy a light feast and be set back no more than $24; less if they opt for other selections. (Dishes range $4-$6.)
Sample will surprise anyone who disdains canned goods. The freshness and richness of flavor that I enjoyed while visiting the cafe surprised me, and I’m not averse to serving a meal that begins with a can opener.
"Most of the canned foods are very good as is," says Martinez. "Sometimes I’ll sprinkle on a little salt or add lemon juice or vinegar for acid. That’s all it needs."
A few coarse grains of sea salt enlivened smoky, grilled red peppers filled with a puree of codfish. Sixteen-year-old sherry vinegar mellowed tender baby squid stuffed with tentacles and their own ink. Both dishes are imported from Spain where they obviously know what to put in a can.
Giant white beans from Greece in a rich olive oil and tomato sauce were firm, creamy-centered and surprisingly beefy tasting. Thickly sliced, fried Turkish baby eggplant were a bit drab without adornment. With a squirt of lemon juice: perfect.
Octopus from Japan, called wasabi tako, is delivered vacuum-sealed in plastic. Visually, it’s no beauty; resembling rice pudding tinted an unearthly pale green. Order it anyway. The wasabi (the root of an Asian plant with a flavor similar to horseradish) ignites the mouth like a firecracker, and then dies down to a soft heat. The squid is firm yet tender; its bland taste transformed by the intensity of the root.
With a glass of cold, smooth Wakatake sake (labeled daiginjo, the highest grade of distilled sake), it’s an unforgettable dish.
A meal can consist of simple nibbles like tangy goat butter on sweet, nutty, fig bread (the tiny fig seeds adding a pleasant graininess) from the Royal Crown Pastry Shop in Bensonhurst, topped with thin, crisp crescents of radishes that taste faintly of peanuts, or a saucer of big, green Spanish olives, black olives and a few fava beans.
You can’t go wrong with any of the imported meat. The thinly sliced, sweet, jamon serrano (aged, air-dried ham) from Spain, scattered with a few crisp almonds, had a slightly smoky flavor, almost like tobacco.
Pass on the overly damp St. James almond cake from Spain, (although I liked the pears steeped in Muscatel wine that sat beside it) for the plate of cow milk cheese from Basque, France, a pungent bleu Fourme d’ Ambert, or a delectably nutty chaorce, a triple creme that is only occasionally on the menu.
With a glass of Australian port, which has just a hint of cherries, you’ll enjoy dessert.
And there’s so much more: sweet, grilled onions and artichoke hearts perfumed with oregano from Italy; a shredded squid salad seasoned with ginger and cucumber pickle from Japan; chewy, salted, aged beef called bresaola, from Italy; and, in addition to French cheese there are fabulous examples from Italy, Switzerland and Spain.
There’s very little to whine about at Sample. I didn’t love the overly rich, crumbly zampone, a highly seasoned pork pate from Italy, or the fishy New Zealand mussels with plum compote, a case of opposites not attracting.
Most of the dishes were so good, however, that you may be tempted to order four (or more) instead of the well mannered two.
As Brooklyn’s own Mae West would say, "Too much of a good thing is wonderful."
Sample (152 Smith St. between Bergen and Wyckoff streets in Boerum Hill) accepts Visa and MasterCard. Dishes: $4-$6. The restaurant is open for dinner seven days a week. For information, call (718) 643-6622.