“In the restaurant reviewing system, poor dining offenses are considered especially heinous. In Dallas, Texas, the dedicated detectives who investigate these vicious felonies are members of an elite squad, known as the SideDish Victims Unit. These are their stories.”
Last night, Detective Andrew Chalk busted into a preview dinner at Samar by Stephan Pyles. He files this report:
Samar by Stephan Pyles opens tonight. This is undoubtedly one of the most anticipated new restaurants of the year. Yesterday, the restaurant held a preview to finalize the kitchen and service procedures and we were there. It is quite an experience.
First, those Dishers who expressed concern after last week’s opening that the concept behind the restaurant was confused, can rest more easily. The menu is organized into three clear sections: Spain, The Eastern Mediterranean, and India. If you stick to the Spanish section, you will agree with me–this may be the best Spanish restaurant in town. Order from the Indian section only and you’ll find that Samar may be the best Indian restaurant in town. The Eastern Mediterranean section is impressive too.
Dishes come in tapas portions. That is, about the size of an appetizer on a conventional menu (see the pictures below). We found them ideal for sharing between two and adequately filling if you ordered six dishes (plus dessert) per couple. All three sections of Samar’s menu are crucibles of innovation. For example, don’t look for potato croquettes or fried smelt on the Spanish section. The closest to the former is Croquetas del Cangrejo (Peekytoe Crab Fritters with Celery-Citrus Salpicon).
The most ambitious dish we tried was Tres Vasos. This prosaic name conceals three glasses containing an exotic but highly successful combination of ingredients inspired, apparently, by the food of The New Spain.
Left to right: Ruby red grapefruit with feta foam and lemongrass-ginger gelée; Spiced shrimp with pumpkin flan and orange; Foie gras brulée with Pedro Ximenez figs and crispy jamon Serrano.
Let’s deconstruct the the foie gras brulée with Pedro Ximenez figs and crispy jamon Serrano: you pick through the bacon taste of the crisp jamon on top and proceed to a layer of foam before reaching the figs below. At the bottom, there is a meaty floor in the glass comprised of a half inch of foie gras. Absolute heaven.
In the Indian section we enjoyed the Mumbai Ka Badi Jhinga (Tiger Prawn ‘Bombay Style’ with Crispy Okra Salad and Spiced Pear Chutney).
The risk with prawns is that the mild flavor will be emaciated, either by time or more dominant ingredients. This one serves as an example of how to season and spice a prawn to enhance its flavors. The choice of okra as the side vegetable imparts a crisp element in the mouth to compliment the meatiness of the seafood. The pear chutney, like many chutneys, acts as a sweet condiment for the dish.
Appropriately for Texas, Samar has Quail too. This one–Tandoori Bater Ke Saath Navarthon Palau (Stuffed Tandoori Quail with ‘Nine Jewels’ Rice)– is prepared in a Tandoor and stuffed with rice.
The meat was so tender that I quartered the one in the picture with two cuts of my knife. Those things on top are figs and they ooze their sweet juice that, let’s be honest, is really a sort of sauce, into the meat.
Vegetarians will find that several dishes in the Indian section that are satisfactory too. Those examples are typical of the Indian section of the menu in that they take western ingredients and subject them to Indian spices, herbs and culinary technique. The result might be described as a ‘fusion’, were that word not confined to a home for the chronically overused. Better to think of the Indian influence adding an extra dimension to traditional ingredients. You can’t do to a quail what Samar does to a quail without a tandoor, cumin, coriander, and a lot of technique.
The Eastern Mediterranean section of the menu continues the innovative theme at Samar. We experienced the Kofte Addas Ahmar (Crunchy Red Lentil Kofke with Mint and Rose Vinegar Pickled Pearl Onions at the opening celebration two weeks ago, but Rose Vinegar?
I have never had this before but I now will never forget the distinctive taste. Using it to pickle onions is “new synergy.”
We also had Ajill Tagine Maa Couscous (Veal Tagine with Medjool Dates and Tri-Color Almond Couscous).
This may be Middle Eastern comfort food. The veal pulled apart with a fork and the couscous almost dissolved in the mouth. This dish is ideal for the coming winter and one of the more mainstream items on the menu.
Preview dinners put a new restaurant on display, warts and all. The verdict? Our server, Alex, wasn’t warty at all. He was always available and had the ingredients in the dishes down cold. The pace of the meal was also just right. Preparation had some warts. We had a few dishes where some items were distinctly hotter than others (implying some synchronization issues in the kitchen) and the foie gras in the Patatas Y Chorizo Con Huevo Orgánico (Potatoes and Chorizo with Fried Motley Farm Organic Egg and Hudson Valley Foie Gras) was cool in the middle.
The red wine was way too warm. Apparently it is stored at room temperature but under a halogen light (duh!). You can see this to the left of the bar. That will have to change by tonight. We also got a corked bottle of Chardonnay, but this was corrected promptly (memo to sommelier: always taste wines by the glass at the start of service each night).
These are all fixable and Samar is a welcome addition to the Dallas dining scene.