by Len Lear
A food writer, Sherry Hughes, for a newspaper called The Sentinel in the town of Keene, New Hampshire, told me in an email last week that in the fall she visited her sister, Donna, in South Jersey. She subsequently wrote an article last Oct. 19 stating that the best meal of her life had previously been in Cape Breton Island. However, that “has now been eclipsed.”
Sherry and her sister celebrated a belated birthday at Sampan, which has been at 124 S. 13th St. (in the area now called Midtown Village) since December, 2009, and that the dinner they enjoyed there “now goes in the books as my best meal ever … I thoroughly enjoyed everything I ate. It was divine. And I don’t use the word ‘divine’ a lot.”
I can’t say I was surprised. We first met Sampan’s owner/chef, Michael Schulson, now 37, about 10 years ago, after Stephen Starr brought him from Long Island to Philly to helm Pod, his then-new Asian fusion restaurant at 36th and Sansom Streets. After sampling his menu and chatting with him, I wrote that the handsome Schulson would “become a media superstar in the years to come,” and I hate to brag (not bloody likely), but subsequent events have proved my prediction to be prescient.
In the past decade Schulson , who had cooked at the Tokyo Four Seasons Hotel in Japan and who speaks conversational Japanese, has starred on three TV cooking shows — Style Network’s “Pantry Raid,” TLC’s “Ultimate Cake-Off” and Discovery Channel’s “Go Ahead, Make My Dinner.” He has also been a guest on countless other TV shows, and he has been featured in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal; he created a line of frozen appetizers for www.AppetizersToGo.com; and he has been the executive chef at Buddakan in New York and Izakaya in the Borgata Hotel-Casino in Atlantic City.
Sampan, the restaurant named for the modest Chinese riverboat that was the primary means of Asian water travel for centuries, is much more upscale than the humble boat. Its modernistic décor includes an open kitchen and two dining rooms with color-shifting wall panels, distressed metals, reclaimed timber and a rustic aesthetic. Foodwise, you really can’t go wrong with anything on the pan-Asian menu. I would strongly recommend the $40 prix fixe dinner, which includes seven small plates of your choosing. A Schulson signature dish, crispy rock shrimp with pickled radish and chili aioli, is so good it makes the naughty parts tingle; in some restaurants you wonder if they grilled the meat or just gave it the third degree, but at Sampan the Korean barbecued short ribs with kim che and ginger are as fine-tuned as a Lang Lang performance of a Beethoven piano concerto. The panoply of scissor-sharp flavors and textures adds up to a circus in your mouth. And a cocktail, Satsuma Martini (satsuma is a Japanese citrus fruit), was one of the best we ever had, well worth the $11 price tag.
If I were forced to mention any negatives about Sampan, I’d have to say that the quantity of wine in the wines-by-the-glass is certainly inadequate; the courses come out at lightning speed, one right after the other, and it is one of the loudest, noisiest restaurants we have ever been in. We were there on a Thursday, and we were first seated next to a table of six women whose voices could have melted iron. We asked to be moved into the other dining room, which was filled with large parties of 20- and 30-somethings, some of whom must have felt they were at an Eagles game. Just a few yards from us, two men with cannons for mouths at a table of eight were screaming so loudly, they could have peeled paint off the wall. People like this are not ready to go out in public unsupervised.
To be fair, however, I must add that there are probably very few diners like us in this city who are bothered by mega-decibel noise in restaurants or anywhere else. Young people grow up these days bombarded by so much noise that to them supersonic sounds are normal. No one in the dining room but us seemed to be disturbed in the least by the relentless ear-shattering din, and of all the comments about Sampan I’ve read on a few blogs, no one else has mentioned it. So unless you’re an old fogey like us, I wouldn’t give it a second thought.
Our waiter, Frank, was most knowledgeable and efficient. I would strongly recommend parking at the multi-story parking garage on the southeast corner of 12th and Sansom Streets, exactly one block from the restaurant. And ask for a parking voucher at Sampan, and you will pay only $5 at the garage, less than you would put into a kiosk on the street for three hours. For more information, call 215-732-3501 or visit www.sampanphilly.com.