POP GOES THE SOUTH END: with great fusion comfort food.
I’ve followed the brilliant Filipino-American chef Rene Michelena for several years. Yet I’ve somehow missed his fellow countryman and former assistant Felino Samson, who’s probably even better known nationally. Now in his own restaurant, Pops (his nickname), Samson expresses himself within some strict price points and comes up with some very special food. Interestingly, while both chefs come from the same place and have worked in Mediterranean kitchens, Samson’s style is quite different. Michelena goes for slightly undercooked and juicy morsels, while Samson overcooks several characteristic dishes to get a more developed flavor and a surprising texture. Are you ready for fusion comfort food?
His sambal chicken wings with cucumber cream ($7.50), for example, sound like a fusion response to Buffalo wings. But that’s not the case. Samson precooks six segments, breads and fries them, then wraps them in a banana leaf for drama. When you pick up a wing, it tends to fall apart, sending you into a different frame of reference. And when you get there, the flavor is not spicy, but all chicken, like chicken used to taste. The sambal — I was thinking of that chili-pepper sambal in Malaysian restaurants — is not evident, nor is there any need for a cooling cucumber cream. Still, it’s great.
So are three lobster-and-cod croquettes ($10), and they too are a little soft and crumbly for fried food. The bite of salt-cod flavor is added to the richness of lobster in a very effective way. The aioli dip, a garlic mayonnaise that can sometimes be harsh, is smooth and mild here. The same goes for the elephant garlic and bread soup ($9). Elephant garlic looks like giant garlic, but tastes like mild garlic. The mini tureen takes most of its flavor from cream, although garlic begins to emerge as you go along. On the bottom are tiny, sweet shrimp.
Even an ordinary salad — wedge of romaine with goat cheese ranch dressing and bacon ($7.50) — is presented remarkably. The wedges are cut thin and stacked, as is the stick of mild goat cheese and the perfectly flat and rectangular piece of crisp bacon. You have to figure that Samson will come up with a way to make the ranch dressing long and thin too.
The entrées continue the culinary motifs of the appetizers. Case in point: “crispy” confit of half duck ($20) is not very crisp, other than the skin. The meat of this cured duck came to the table even more crumbly and falling off the bone than the sambal wings. But the flavor was worth it, as confit duck can be too salty. The cherry sauce is traditional enough, and the little piping of mashed sweet potato gives you an economy entrée that is low on starch but high on protein. The “market fish” of the day was perfectly cooked local cod ($20), served with mashed potatoes and a little stew of sliced root vegetables (parsnips, carrots, potato, and leek). The flavors were muted but rich, the better to show off the mild sweetness of the cod.
A steak entrée for $20? Not a problem for this creative chef. Samson has chosen a flank steak, a cheap cut wonderfully done and perfectly cut to minimize chewiness. Shiitakes, the chewiest fresh mushrooms, are sliced into the gravy. And then you have a cone of French fries, again not terribly crisp but wonderfully full of potato flavor, with a hint of garlic and thyme seasoning.
For a modest menu description, how about “Chicken fricassee or stew with potato and wild rice dumplings” ($17). This was more like chicken stew, in my book. My grandmother’s chicken fricassee had bones; this was boned breast — not overcooked — served in an addictive gravy of wild mushrooms and micro carrots. What I first thought were sea scallops were even better: slices of leek. The dumplings were the only off note in this dish. The wild-rice flavor and texture weren’t there, so this was more like hard gnocchi. A side dish of cauliflower “risotto” ($5) was an edible casserole of chopped cauliflower, cream, and cheese, but not much like risotto. Risotto is grains of rice bound by hydrolyzed starch from all the stirring. You can chop cauliflower to look a little like rice, but the sauce won’t be creamy and sticky without some kind of rice flour or starch.
The wine list moves quickly into medium prices, but is very, very good. I guessed right that “Fattoria Ambro barco reale 2004 Tuscany” ($9/glass; $36/bottle) was going to be another deep-flavored Chianti from neighboring Carmignano. It had both fruit and depth. And the 2005 Mt. Nelson Sauvignon Blanc ($12/$43) was one of the best New Zealand whites I’ve ever tasted, which is saying a lot. My initial impression was of citrus perfume; the flavor followed. Wine service was unusually good, with the waiter showing us the bottle and going through the tasting ritual on single-glass orders. Iced tea ($3) was brewed to order; cappuccino ($4) and decaf coffee ($4) were also excellent.