News and Reviews: San Francisco Chronicle

San Francisco Chronicle

“Beautiful views, friendly service, great seafood
items such as oysters, crab, lobster.”

–Michael Bauer, San Francisco Chronicle, January 28, 2007

A mini-vacation in Half Moon Bay at Sam's Chowder House

Michael Bauer
Saturday, January 28, 2007

As we drove into the parking lot at Sam's Chowder House in Half Moon Bay, we passed a black Porsche Carrera and eased in next to a gold Bentley -- high-class company for my Miata at a modest chowder house that's been open only three months.

"I wonder who drove the Bentley?" I asked my companion as we were seated in the back beyond the open kitchen, circular fireplace and rows of tables.

"The table in front," he said, indicating an older couple. "She has really good jewelry. Oh, and the table next to us," he continued, pointing out a couple in jeans, woolly shirts and scuffed boots, "they drive a Dodge Dart."

Chowder houses are to the East Coast what taquerias are to San Francisco: casual spots that attract a diverse, egalitarian audience. It seems just about everyone driving the coast is drawn to seaside restaurants, regardless of what kind of car gets them there.

Unfortunately, the adage about good views and bad food is supported by most restaurants dotting Highway 1. Saying they're mediocre is high praise. Yet even from the blacktop, Sam's looks different, with a bright sign and a low-slung, gray-shingled building set against the sea. During the day, boats on the harbor fill the protected lagoon, creating a romantic, soothing setting.

Most tables have a gorgeous view. The interior isn't particularly architecturally interesting; six metal beams that look as if they're made of rebar cross the ceiling, and wood-topped tables hold all the expected complements. An impressive 25-seat oyster bar displays not only raw seafood but also pots of steaming chowder.

Outside, the 120-seat patio overlooks the ocean and includes rows of Adirondack chairs for lounging. At night, a circular fireplace replaces the shimmering ocean as the focal point, as diners warm themselves, slurping oysters, sipping coffee or lingering over a drink after dinner.

Owner Paul Shenkman, who also created the highly regarded Cetrella in Half Moon Bay, hails from the East Coast and is trying to rekindle fond memories. Entering Sam's feels like a vacation, and that's before the oysters ($1.50-$2.50 each), chowder ($5.95/$7.95) and crab Louie salad ($15.95) arrive. All three items are stellar and will keep people coming back.

Chef Ross Browne was raised in New Zealand but spent eight years heading the kitchen at Absinthe, the French brasserie at Hayes and Gough in San Francisco. He combines a childhood love of the sea with the ability to add spark to the menu, which is mostly boilerplate for the genre -- puffy battered fish and chips ($14.95) that taste more of the breading than the seafood; piles of fried calamari ($9.95); shrimp cocktail ($9.95); and, for carnivores, a couple of meat dishes, including a pretty good half chicken under a brick ($17.95).

While Sam's tries to emulate the mood of the East Coast chowder houses by featuring such items as a lobster roll ($17.95) -- chunks of seafood and dices of celery piled on a butter-soaked roll -- Browne also includes West Coast specialties, such as a very good version of cioppino ($24).

This classic seafood stew starts with a spicy tomato broth that boldly flavors but doesn't overpower the crab, mussels, clams and chunks of fish. Unfortunately, you're left to your own devices in getting the crab from the shell. It's cracked, but there are no other utensils to help. When you're about halfway through, the waiter brings over four small moist towelettes that are impossible to get out of their foil packets with sticky fingers.

In another nod to the West Coast by way of Hawaii, Browne offers ahi poke ($8.95) -- big chunks of deep red tuna doused in soy, sesame oil, lime juice and a scattering of green onions crowded into a straight-sided old-fashioned glass. The fish is fresh, but the pieces are too big to eat in one bite.

Browne also makes an Oregon shrimp ceviche ($7.50) of small shrimp marinated in lime with jalapeño and mango, but the seafood has a bland, papery quality that's not enhanced by the marinade.

Those wanting to drink their lunch can down an oyster shooter ($5.95, or $13.95 for three). The elongated shot glasses have three fillings: vodka flavored with tomato juice and Bloody Mary fixings; limoncello, lemon, lime and grapefruit juice; and cucumber with vodka and mint. The oysters come on the half shell, accompanied by containers of horseradish, chile sauce and mignonette; diners can eat the oyster separately if desired and chase it with the aromatic potions. The suggested method is to toss the oyster into the glass and down the contents in one big gulp.

If you like oysters cooked, Browne does a spectacular job on oysters Rockefeller ($7), with the four shells topped with fresh chopped herbs, breadcrumbs, parsley and what tastes like a liberal splash of Pernod.

Browne also uses his creativity on a few main courses, including a blue nose bass ($20.95) in which the pristine hunk of fish is served with kale, mushrooms and a potato-scallion gratin. While the fish is great, the side dishes had an almost cafeteria quality. Seared ahi ($20.95) is napped with an orange-olive dressing, and petrale sole ($24.95) is stuffed with crab and shrimp.

With the exception of these small flourishes, the menu is pretty straightforward, which isn't a bad thing for a seaside restaurant. Diners can't go wrong with the captain's seafood platter ($39.50), with cold oysters, mussels, clams, lobster and crab, either the creamy Boston chowder or the spicier tomato-based Manhattan chowder, and crab Louis. I like to add fries ($3.95) with a dusting of Old Bay, which on one visit were crisp and spectacular but on another were unacceptably limp.

Mainly, Sam's offers food geared to crowds, which will increase dramatically in the next few months as the weather warms. While the restaurant hopes to attract locals, its success will depend on catering to tourists. The young servers seem as if they've been hired for their Midwestern friendliness. They all wear electronic boxes on their belts that can print the check and process the credit card tableside, a great contraption for turning tables quickly.

That might seem impersonal, but the staff's affable demeanor saves the day. Our waiter practically insisted we try the chocolate-hazelnut ice cream sandwich ($5.95), even when we protested that we were full.

We were glad we took his advice. The thick chocolate cookie with an inch filling of ice cream is wrapped in paper for easy eating. It's the best dessert on the compact list, although the Key lime pie ($6.50) is good and would be even better if a little less sweet, and a dense flourless chocolate cake ($8) will certainly satisfy chocoholics. The apple cranberry crisp ($6.50) was rushed out of the kitchen prematurely; the insides were cold and the topping wasn't properly crisped.

While well meaning, the service can be somewhat scattershot. On one visit, for example, the black T-shirt-clad lad used his trays like a tambourine, dancing through the dining room to the beat of the music, forgetting to pick up a single empty plate or utensil on his way. Other times, the staff stands in the center of the big dining rooms and chats, while people wait for their water glasses to be filled or their drinks to be replenished.

Yet most customers are mellow. With the soothing views and the raw goodness of the seafood, most will welcome any diversion that will keep them in their chairs a few minutes longer.

Sam's wine list is well suited to seafood

Chowder houses are designed for casual, leisurely meals where diners gorge on fresh seafood. The wines need to reflect that casual aura, and the list at Sam's Chowder House does the job nicely.

The one-page list features 10 half bottles, 14 wines by the glass priced from $6 to $9, and about 55 other wines designed for washing down the mostly seafood menu.

As might be expected, white wines dominate, but they're well selected -- the majority of the Chardonnays, for example, are leaner in style.

There are also some interesting Sauvignon Blancs, and the "Other White Wines" selection offers some of best and least expensive options: a pleasant 2005 Pascal Jolivet Sancerre ($42) which is great for raw bar selections; the 2005 Nora Albarino ($38), which will go with just about everything else on the menu, although the markup is high; and the 2005 Fogarty Gewurztraminer ($27), which is a slam dunk for cioppino and chowders.

In red wines, Cabernet Sauvignons still dominate, which seems to point to the more touristy nature of this enterprise, but you can get some really pleasant Syrahs, Zinfandels and Pinot Noirs, such as the 2004 Sonnet Wine Cellars Pinot Noir from the Santa Lucia Highlands ($60).

While no cocktail list is available, Sam's has a full bar with generally well-prepared, well-priced classic cocktails. For example, a sidecar is $5.50 and a Negroni is $6.

If you bring your own wine, corkage is $15.

-- M.B.

Michael Bauer is The Chronicle's restaurant critic.