Away from its original, idyllic oceanfront spot just north of Half Moon Bay, Bay Area diners were at first very skeptical about how Sam's Chowder House would evolve. Could the Sam's vaunted lobster roll really taste as good without a background of surfers and sea lions?
Instead of being just a carbon copy of the original, the Sam's in Palo Alto has taken on its own identity. The menu shows more ambition and creativity thanks to chef Robert Holt. After serving as executive chef for Campo 185 during its brief run in the same space (under the same ownership as Sam's), Holt remained for the restaurant's transformation.
The much-maligned sardine is always a great litmus test for a chef's talent with seafood. Holt's sweet and sour preparation ($8.25) even overshadows the famous lobster roll. And it's only served in Palo Alto.
These fish are local, from right off the Half Moon Bay coast. They're actually substantial in size, weighing in around three ounces each before cleaning. As an appetizer, two are plenty. And they should be eaten with the skin on. Holt cures the sardines in-house for about three hours in two kinds of vinegar, sugar, and toasted coriander seeds. Together, the skin and thin filet have a slight fishy, umami tinge.
The sardines are given a pleasant jolt from accompaniments that could easily overwhelm their soft texture and flavor. Holt's multiple visits to Sicily inspired the combination of castelvetrano olives and golden raisin agrodolce, a mix of syrup and chutney. What could be a too sweet palate coater is perfectly balanced with the sourness of white balsamic vinegar. I couldn't help but think how this has the same extremes of Bi-Rite's salted caramel ice cream, translated into a fish dish. Citrus slices add a final garnish.
As simple and rustic as this dish is, there are an unordinary amount of compelling flavor contrasts to make the sum of its parts far more exciting than the list of ingredients.
Now, about that lobster roll you see at least half the dining room digging into. It's a winner, full of oversized chunks of moist meat given some heft from a fair amount of butter. But I'd trade the sunset view any day for these superb local sardines with a Sicilian accent.
185 University Ave., Palo Alto; (650) 614-1177.