SAMPAN IS THE third pan-Asian shared-plates restaurant to open in Philadelphia in the past six months. Clearly, there’s an appetite for a new spin on what has become a pretty stale genre in Philly, but can anyone put a fresh coat of paint on the house that Buddakan built? Is it even possible to make these fusion flavors exciting again? Of course it is. Just ask New York City Momofuku master David Chang, whose white-hot restaurant group has mesmerized the Big Apple for the past few years. There are traces of Chef Chang’s influence at all of our newest Asian-fusion restaurants, but none have gone as far as Michael Schulson’s Sampan, whose hit-or-miss menu weaves strands of dull mediocrity with highlights of Chang-flavored inspiration.
[sidebar]Exhibit A: Sampan’s crispy brussels sprouts. Rip-off or tribute? The stellar side dish of fried sprouts is festooned with the puffed rice that’s a David Chang signature. The dish is no interpretation; it’s a dead ringer. Chef Schulson freely admits that New York’s wunderchef provided a great deal of inspiration for Sampan. And why shouldn’t he seek inspiration? Philadelphia still lacks a hip Asian spot that blends creativity and authenticity — though Sampan has potential.
Schulson’s version of Peking duck shows off the chef’s ability to put familiar flavors in a fun new package. The duck is confited before the shreds of meat are folded into a rich duck-stock foam and served in a jar alongside delicate crepes. It certainly looks like no other Peking duck I’ve ever been served, but the flavors and textures are on point. He also creatively interprets the Philly cheesesteak, combining succulent braised beef and provolone cheese atop a fried round of house-made bao bun. It’s a juicy, delicious bite that elevates the classic.
Not all the best tastes are so whimsical; Schulson has lived, worked and traveled in Asia, and his slightly tweaked versions of traditional dishes display his understanding of those flavors. The mao pao tofu combines butter-soft bean curd with meaty bits of pork in a spicy sauce. The wok-seared broccoli is cooked crisp-tender and is not unlike what you get in Chinatown. A pile of Korean rice cakes, which are actually fat, chewy, round rice noodles, mingles with Italian sausage and spicy kim chee juice. Sampan is worth a visit for this dish alone.
But much of the menu falls short of its potential. A reasonably priced petit filet was overcooked and underseasoned (though it was served with fries made addictive with a coating of dehydrated miso powder). The chicken satay was dry and rubbery — and boring, besides. The roasted scallops were inconsistently cooked (one perfect, two overdone). Some dishes, including the edamame dumplings and supposedly Thai chicken wings, were bland, lacking the sweet-sour-spicy punch I expect from Asian fare. Each of my visits was a roller coaster of pleasures and letdowns.