Never mind what they say about revenge. It is redemption that is truly sweet.
I first reviewed Sam's, located inside Louis Boston on the South Boston waterfront, when it opened three years ago, a collaboration among local restaurant veteran Esti Parsons (Radius, Rialto), husband Drew Parsons (member of the band American Hi-Fi), and Drew's brother, Jon, in charge of the drinks program. Then, it was a one-star restaurant with a four-star view. And I was being generous. I recall receiving a skate dish so paltry and wizened its appearance at the table made everyone burst into laughter.
Since then, Sam's has installed a new chef, Asia Mei, whose resume includes experience at Hamersley's Bistro, Franklin Southie, and Whole Foods. Shake the three together in equal parts and you've got the recipe for Sam's. Mei's menu is full of classic dishes with clever twists, prepared relatively healthfully, with an emphasis on produce from places such as Blue Heron Organic Farm in Lincoln and Eva's Garden in Dartmouth. Vegetarians often suffer in Boston, stuck with bland pasta or dull grilled vegetables. Here, one might wind up ordering a meatless meal without realizing it. The food is clean, tasty, and satisfying. In a good way, it often resembles what a home cook might prepare for guests he or she cares about. It is designed to feed well more than it is to impress.
And so: redemption. It is a pleasure to say Sam's is now a very nice place to eat, with food that complements its idyllic location. In fine weather, the deck is always crowded with people sipping this and nibbling that and watching sailboats breeze by as the sun eventually sets and the twinkling city switches itself on.
Part of the menu is devoted to cocktail party fare — pickled vegetables, hummus with pita chips, oysters, a daily cheese plate. Tangy whipped feta comes with raw sliced bell peppers and thin, crisp papadums. It's simple but fun to eat, the flavors bright, creamy on crunchy. Another plate pairs sweet potato slices fried in tempura batter and stalks of broccolini, random companions that both benefit from a dunk in not-too-garlicky green goddess dressing. Such snacks work perfectly when one has a drink in hand. Or hands, as one may need both to hold the BFG&T, which stands for, to paraphrase, "really big gin and tonic." It lives up to its name.
Cocktails here are often whimsical in conception as well as title. Do rye, honey liqueur, barley-espresso liqueur, sparkling wine, and iced tea really go together, as in the crazy-sounding Aventine? Actually, yes. Yet the proportions of the not-so-crazy-sounding Orito — sake, Lillet, and grapefruit liqueur — are off. Sam's is the rare bar without beer on tap; cans and bottles are available, a function of limited space. For wine drinkers, the tight quarters may be a boon. They mean the wine list is small and changes frequently — 15 whites and 15 reds, four each by the glass, with most bottles in the $30-$50 range.
After drinks, for the first course, summer is served. There are classics such as chilled beet soup and tomato-watermelon salad with ricotta salata and basil. These are appetizers that actually wake up the appetite, light and refreshing. Nothing is breaded or deep-fried. A quinoa salad with grapefruit, arugula, feta, and Marcona almonds is perfect picnic food, healthy yet lush. Fennel salad provides a crisp counterpoint to shrimp and grits, the shrimp sauteed in whiskey, the grits spicy with jalapeno. Halloumi cheese comes off the grill smoky and chewy, on a plate with cherry tomatoes, peaches, and plenty of pepper, a happy and delicious mess. It could be plated with a bit more finesse; inside the fashionable Louis, appearances do matter. (Sam's relatively light fare isn't popular just because it tastes good.)
Seared scallops shine in a main course, matched with grilled corn, cherry tomatoes, and candied bacon for an extra burst of sweetness and salt. When Sam's serves meat, it really means it: Grilled flank steak is a portion that could serve two, cooked on the blue side of rare. It's plated over brown rice with spinach, pickled red cabbage, and banana peppers, a pleasing departure from the usual fries with obligatory sprig of watercress. Vegetable eaters get "steak," too — grilled tofu steak in barbecue sauce with horseradish slaw, the flavors nicely balanced. The scallion biscotti on the plate are an odd touch; they read too much like cookies, not quite savory enough.
There are disappointing dishes here. Halibut is crusted in fragrant coriander, served with leeks and grapes in champagne-saffron butter, classic and elegant. But the fish is overcooked and dry. Roast chicken meets a similar fate. It comes with plain, bland chickpeas and a lovely smoky tomato sauce, like deconstructed chana masala; the dish only works if each bite incorporates some of each element. Mussels are tiny and shriveled, spiked with desiccated pork belly.
Chocolate pudding makes everything better. Sam's is silky, with deep chocolate flavor; threads of candied orange peel lend a lovely texture and keep the dessert from being too much of a good thing. A simple roast peach with honeyed ricotta shows again what Sam's does best — preparing good seasonal ingredients in simple, satisfying ways.
The atmosphere is as relaxed as the food — incredibly loud, always crowded, with sassy servers and board games available for the playing. Sometimes the laidback nature of the place goes a bit far. One night, a bartender knocks a glass of water into a woman's lap, then laughs it off with too little concern: She is being nice about it, but she is plainly not happy. Another night, the doors to the trash area are left open, providing incoming guests with an unappetizing view.
"Sam's is not about reinventing the wheel," its website says. What is it about? "The local bounty of New England's farms and artisans; the simplicity of an American Diner; and the warmth and welcoming spirit of our home." Three years after opening, the restaurant is finally what it was always intended to be.