As a critic, it's good to end the year on a high note. My last restaurant of the year is a real find, and one I almost passed up, thinking it might not be worth a Sunday review.
Part of the problem was the name: Sam's Kid. It just didn't sound like a serious restaurant. Or one that would be fun to go to. Part of the problem was the description of the food: pan-Asian tapas. That sounded like it could be just another Fells Point bar with a few small plates.
Wrong. And I knew I was wrong the moment I stepped into the jazzy little dining room. It had the kind of cool style I expect from Los Angeles' Asian restaurants, not those in Baltimore. Owner Andrea Rani, a native of Indonesia who named the restaurant in her father's honor, spent a year renovating the space.
Everything is fresh-looking, with white walls, highly polished hardwood floors and blond wood tables. Most of the furnishings and artwork are from Rani's home, things she's collected over the years traveling four continents.
The eye is immediately drawn to a figure carved in pink citrine that has the place of honor against one wall, but there are also modern furnishings in purple and red, and colorful, funky stools at the bar in back. Yet somehow the effect is serene and even understated as a whole.
You could say the same of the food, a collection of small plates, noodle soups, big plates and sushi. It's colorful, elegant and delicate, with small florets of broccoli, thinly sliced carrot and julienned red pepper, perhaps a small scattering of crushed fried noodles to add a bit of crunch on top. The dishes are arranged in handsome bowls or on fragile-looking china. Ingredients are very fresh, prepared so they retain their bright colors and flavors.
Flavors are complex and almost across-the-board intriguing. There is plenty of explosive fire typical of both Thai and Korean cuisines, but it never overwhelms the other tastes.
Take something as simple as the green beans sauteed with a spicy black bean sauce, which Rani says is an Indonesian dish, although I've had a version at Thai restaurants. The beans are just-tender, and the sauce will lure you in with its combination of sweet and sour. It's not until you've had a few bites that the heat kicks in. The same sauce, but jacked up with ginger, makes an appearance over four large green shell mussels on the half shell. This is a beautiful dish: The mussels are nestled in a small Asian pottery bowl. But in one of the kitchen's few missteps, they were tough as old shoe leather.
We didn't order any sushi - there was too much else we wanted to try - but judging from the tuna napoleon, I would guess it's good. Very fresh chopped raw tuna is layered with two crisp Asian crackers and seaweed. Flavors of peanut, sesame and scallion linger on the tongue but don't obscure the tuna itself.
Little steamed dumplings, both tender and chewy, are fat with shredded chicken and pork, but it's their sauce, a sort of citrus vinaigrette, that makes them memorable. I can't think of an Asian restaurant in Baltimore that has better sauces than Sam's Kid.
Take the sauce on the Crispy Calamari, which are cut in long, thin strips and fried tempura-style. It's way too sweet for my taste, one of those thin, very sweet Thai chili sauces; and it's the last thing that should taste good on squid. But it does. It's the first time I've considered that calamari might be good for dessert.
These dishes were all chosen from the small plates section. The last one we tried was Blackened Tofu, which doesn't do it justice. The name has nothing to do with the spicing. Small, flat squares of tofu are slightly charred and stir-fried with broccoli florets, peppers and other vegetables in a delicate sauce that has been a bit caramelized. It will win over non-tofu eaters.
One of us ordered Pad Sew from the "Big Plates" section of the menu because she loves the flat rice noodles that traditionally come with it. A bit later the owner arrived at the table to apologize. The order of those noodles hadn't come in that day. My friend was obviously disappointed but decided to have the dish anyway. I noticed when the check arrived that without saying anything, the owner had comped her glass of wine.
I'm glad she got the dish anyway because the shrimp and calamari sauteed with various vegetables is a great dish, even with egg noodles. It's the one I would order next time so I could try it with the flat noodles. If Sam's Kid's version is better with them, it must be really something.
It was a night for noodle soup that night. I recommend the Korean Chili Beef, but only if you like both kinds of heat. The delicate chicken broth and egg noodles are ramped up with strips of grilled beef, kimchee, Chinese cabbage, spinach and bean sprouts.
Sam's Kid doesn't have a wine list as such. It does offer a pinot grigio "of the moment," a cab "of the moment," and so on. If you order a glass, the server brings the bottle to the table and pours it in large, beautiful wineglasses. There are sweet cocktails, of course, and beers and sake.
When I talked to Rani on the phone after the review, she said that she particularly catered to vegetarians and vegans, and was happy not to use oyster sauce and such if she was warned. I was a little surprised at that because if I had one improvement to suggest, I would ask for more vegetables in the small plates we tried. You don't have to be a vegetarian to like vegetables, especially when they're cooked this well.
Sam's Kid offers two desserts, a bread pudding made with croissants and banana tempura. They would be even better without the squiggles of chocolate sauce everywhere.
Perhaps the most surprising thing to me was how cheap our very fine meal at Sam's Kid was. Dinner for the four of us came to $100 with drinks. I don't think there's anything over $15 on the menu.
Surely that can't last.
811 S. Broadway, Fells Point
Open daily for lunch and dinner
$3.95-$8.50; noodle soups and big plates: $7.95-$13.50
[Outstanding: **** Good: *** Fair or uneven: ** Poor: *]
The address for Sam's Kid was misstated in an earlier version of this article. The Baltimore Sun regrets the error.