News and Reviews: Santa Cruz Sentinel

Santa Cruz Sentinel


Ann Parker
Sentinel restaurant writer

I'm always looking for an excuse to make that stunningly beautiful drive north on Highway 1. So I was eager to check out Sam's Chowder House, a New England-style seafood restaurant located just above Half Moon Bay. "It's the only outdoor oceanfront dining between San Francisco and Santa Cruz," said Paul Shenkman, who opened Sam's with his wife Julie last November.

The restaurant has a pleasant entryway and cheery hostesses, but I doubt anyone notices: The eye is drawn immediately to the splendid panoramic view. Noel and I relaxed at a window table, admiring anchored boats bobbing and Maverick's misting in the distance. Over excellent sourdough-wheat Bay Bread, we talked seafood: I wanted oysters, she craved chowder. And we both hoped the fish wouldn't disappoint, an all-too-common occurrence.

The appetizers on the simple paper menu were so tempting we decided to share several. Our server was obliging and friendly — then fidgeted while taking our order and was uncertain about menu items. This unevenness proved to be a pattern: Enthusiastic, likeable and young, the staff reflected the restaurant's warmly casual appeal but needed a little polish.

Our four appetizers appeared nearly at once, covering the table and slightly disconcerting us. Making room, we sampled the delicate yet hearty Clam Chowder [cup, $5.95] brimming with clam and potato pieces and bits of smoky bacon. Noel purred, "This has real flavor," and we toasted sunset with a lovely 2003 Guenoc sauvignon blanc, Lake County [glass, $9].

Sam's menu offered six types of raw oysters, from Washington Hama Hamas to Prince Edward Island Malpeques. I chose two California Kumamotos [$3 each] and two Long Island Blue Points [$2.75 each], with a "Shooter Sampler" [$13.95] to accompany them: Bloody Mary [good], limoncello [weird] and a delicious icy citrus-cucumber vodka concoction. The Kumamotos were mildly salty and very small: one was an inch across, filling its tiny shell. I favored the larger Blue Points, sweetly plump and tender.

Our four Oysters Rockefeller [$8.95] were baked and presented on a bed of rock salt strewn with cloves and broken bay leaves. We loved these beauties, hot and rich in their coats of Parmesan and breadcrumbs. But our best appetizer was the fresh, lively, full-of-aloha Ahi Tuna Poke. The sesame, ginger, scallion and soy marinade positively sang, harmonizing with the high-grade raw ahi. "I'm transported to the islands," Noel said happily.

Then the real test: our Local Halibut [$22.95] with herb-shallot butter and mango salsa on the side. The large, thick halibut steak, flanked by brilliant asparagus spears and killer potato-leek au gratin, was perfect. Beautifully grilled, it embodied this fish's best qualities: mild, firm, sweet.

It's also rated sustainable by the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch. Executive chef Ross Browne noted that Sam's uses local, sustainable products whenever possible: "We're a farming community, a fishing community" A native New Zealander, the seafood-savvy chef has cooked in outstanding kitchens in Paris, New York, New Zealand and San Francisco.

We couldn't leave without sampling Sam's homemade Key Lime Pie [$6.50] and Chocolate-Pistachio Ice Cream Sandwich [$5.95]. Incorporating real key limes, the pie was wonderfully tart and tangy. And the giant chocolate ice cream sandwich, embedded with pistachios and served with chocolate dipping sauce ... whew!

And in case you're wondering about the restaurant's name, Sam is the Shenkmans' six-year-old son. He's very fond of crab and shrimp, says his father — but admits that little Sam's favorite meal at his namesake eatery is a grilled cheese sandwich with homemade soft-serve ice cream.

Ann Parker is a freelance writer and public relations consultant; she welcomes your comments and feedback. Suggestions about reviews for area restaurants? Contact her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

{ cuisine: Excellent. service: Good. value: Good. Ambiance: Loose and lively with casual warmth; great views. cost: Moderate to expensive (entrées, $15.95 to $27.95). Sam's Chowder House, 4210 North Cabrillo Hwy., Half Moon Bay. (650) 712-0245. Hours: Sam's, lunch and dinner, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily. Sam's Seafood Market, Wednesday through Sunday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. }

More about Sam's

To create the sprawling, bi-level structure of Sam's Chowder House, co-owner Paul Shenkman combined two existing restaurants and executed a complete remodel. 'We took it to the studs,' he says.

All of Sam's six dining areas offer ocean views; seating is 200-plus. The main dining room curls around a central wood-burning stove and the mixed decor combines a marble-topped oyster bar, exposed metal beams and distressed-wood floors. Outside, a chrome-showy patio is protected by windscreens and warmed with heaters; picturesque Adirondack chairs face the ocean nearby.

'Sam's best feature is the view — and the food,' says Shenkman. 'It's one of the few places I know of that has oceanfront and good food.' Originally from Atlantic City, N.J., he wanted the restaurant to recreate fond East Coast memories, with a splash of Pacific verve.

An added attraction is the adjoining Sam's Fish Market, selling fresh and prepared seafood, side dishes and various cooking items. Coming for summer: an outdoor mesquite grill kitchen. 'We'll have barbecued oysters, grilled lobsters, fish tacos and more,' promises chef Ross Browne.