Food: ** (2 STARS) Service *** (3 STARS)
Atmosphere ** 1/2 (TWO 1/2 STARS)
Sam's on the Waterfront
2020 Chesapeake Harbor Drive East, Annapolis
Open daily for lunch and dinner; Sunday brunch
Appetizers, $9-$14; entrees, $19-$36.
The first thing you need to know about Sam's is that under new owner Andrew Parks, the name has changed from Sam's Waterfront Cafe to Sam's on the Waterfront. The popular Annapolis hangout is having a makeover, starting with a new chef and a new, ambitious menu of contemporary American food. The name change reflects the fact that you should no longer think of this as a cafe.
In some ways Sam's is in an awkward spot at the moment. The weathered plank structure, located in a gated community overlooking the water, feels like a casual eating spot; and customers treat it that way - arriving in T-shirts and shorts for a dinner where many of the entrees now run in the $30-$35 range. Renovations, apparently, are in the works to make the surroundings more of a match for the menu. Interestingly, the wine list, leaning heavily toward California and France, is moderately priced compared with the food. Maybe it's a holdover.
It's OK with me if I end up spending more than I expected - as long as everything is right on the mark. That means fresh, seasonal food beautifully prepared and presented. But at these prices, if there's a little glitch, I'm less forgiving than usual.
I was mildly worried at the beginning when rolls arrived at the table warm but not baked long enough. They seemed like a throwback to earlier times; nowadays even an ordinary restaurant can have extraordinary bread. But I decided to give Sam's the benefit of the doubt.
Our meal, it turned out, was almost there; a little tweaking and it could have been much better.
The Crispy Kataifi-Wrapped Dayboat Scallops illustrates where the kitchen falls short. First of all, it was one scallop - as big as a baby's fist, to be sure, but still one scallop for $14. It sat regally in its crisp, spiky pastry on a bed of greens - all very fine except for the lake of Grand Marnier raspberry sauce. Apart from the fact that the sweet, fruity sauce was jarring, it looked odd.
The Lobster Mac & Cheese should have been a portrait of white and gold, tasting of nothing more than the luxury of lobster, good cheeses and creamy pasta. Instead the dish was gussied up with bits of red pepper and seasonings.
The kitchen had more success with a charcuterie of pheasant and rabbit pates and a thick slice of Genoa salami. Not much attention was paid to the looks of this plate either, but everything tasted fine. You also won't go wrong with the tuna tataki. The textures of almost-raw fish and avocado with shiitake mushrooms were a perfect match of silky softness. The seaweed salad and lemony dressing added a bit of zip.
Not surprisingly, seafood is a star here, but nothing so plebeian as crab imperial. Of course crab cakes and rockfish are on the menu; they almost have to be in Annapolis. But there is also opakapaka, its firm, meaty flesh crusted with macadamia nuts and edged with fruit. Sea bass is steamed with Chinese five spice powder and served over vermicelli with a decorative clam or two.
I preferred both to our entrees from the "Farm" section of the menu. The filet mignon au poivre was cooked as ordered, and its peppercorn crust and brandy cream sauce lent the meat needed pizazz, but truffle Yukon potato mousseline is, by any other name, mashed potatoes, even if you can locate a bit of truffle, and the garlic spinach was too garlicky to eat.
A duck trio featured a duck leg confit overcooked to the point of being charred, thick slices of duck pate, and sliced breast of duck, plus various fruits and fruit sauces, and red cabbage. If only more care had been paid to it, this could have been a winner.
Desserts were pleasant enough but not memorable: a peach cobbler, profiteroles stuffed with ice cream and covered in chocolate sauce, and a slice of key lime pie.
Nice folks are running this restaurant, and, in another city or if our meal hadn't cost so much, I might think Sam's on the Waterfront would do very well. But diners are sophisticated in Annapolis, and the competition is stiff. At these prices, the food needs to be just about flawless.