Opportunity knocked, opportunity not answered -- at least for now.
That's my summation of Sam's Chowder House in downtown Palo Alto. There was no single glaring problem, rather, a series of off-center details that didn't add up to satisfying dining experiences.
Let's start with the good news though. Sam's lobster roll ($21.95) was luscious. Meaty and sweet, with a hint of brininess, the Maine lobster was lightly tossed with butter and served on a toasted specialty bun. Yes, that is the classic way. Lobster roll with mayo and other ingredients is actually lobster salad.
Both clam chowders were excellent. The white New England style with littleneck clams, Yukon gold potatoes, smoked bacon and cream was loaded with littlenecks and packed with flavor. The velvety broth was just thick enough to coat the spoon.
The tomato-based Manhattan clam chowder was laden with clams, potatoes, vegetables and herbs. Both chowders were $6.95 for a cup and $10.25 for a bowl. The bowl was large -- I spotted several diners making a meal solely on a bowl of chowder.
An excellent fresh-tasting salad was the grilled octopus ($12) with Castelvetrano olives, butter beans, arugula, preserved orange and piment d'espelette -- a chili pepper cultivated in the northern Basque region of France.
Less encouraging was the salmon carpaccio ($9.95) with toasted pine nuts, apple and dressed greens. The salmon itself had rich unctuous flavors and the arugula was crisp. However, the tiny wedges of apple had not been freshly sliced and the somewhat shriveled pine nuts were void of buttery nut flavor, suggesting they had been toasted some time before.
This is Sam's second location. It offers the same prices as the original in Half Moon Bay, but with views of University Avenue gridlock and not the dazzling Pacific. Agreed, rent is higher in Palo Alto. Opened in early November, the restaurant seats up to 200. Apparently prices have already been upped since opening. The prices listed on the Sam's website are lower than the current menu and have not been updated.
I like what they've done with the interior. The space was a pizza house before, French-themed Lavanda before that and omelet-themed Good Earth long ago. It's a nautical decor now: Oars, life preservers and weathered signs reflecting menu items are tacked to the sea-blue walls. It's not overdone; there's no wooden Captain Ahab at reception.
In some respects, Sam's is cutting edge. The beverage menu was on an iPad -- scroll up, down or sideways for wines, beers, cocktails or soft drinks.
The wine list is itemized by label but the information about each wine is boilerplate data about the wineries, with little or no details about the actual wines; a great idea, but lacking details.
The fried seafood combo ($29.95) was a handsome platter of prawns, crab-artichoke fritters, calamari and rock cod -- and way too salty French fries. Over-saltiness was an ongoing problem for many items, and I like salty foods.
The fish and chips ($16.50) was a generous portion of hot juicy cod served in a bucket. The cod was layered over the fries, rendering the top fries soggy. Not that it mattered -- the fries were so salty they were inedible. Besides that, the batter for the fish had salt in it and when the bucket came to the table, there were salt granules on the fish as if someone in the kitchen, at the last minute, didn't think the plate was salty enough.
Pacing from the kitchen was a continuous problem. Twice, entrees were served before we had finished our first courses. Since the tables were too small, the waiter asked us to lift our plates up so he could put his plates down, then he took ours from us whether we were finished or not. Sam's isn't supposed to be a fast-food place, but this left me wondering what was being prepared fresh and what was sitting under heat lamps.
The "authentic" key lime pie ($7.50) was about three inches high, most of which was meringue. The tangy lime curd itself was pleasingly creamy. The graham cracker crust, though, was disappointingly ordinary. Even Sara Lee uses a cookie crust in its key lime cream pie. Authentic? Possibly. Good? Not particularly.
For another dessert, the organic soft-serve with sea salt and olive oil ($4.50), the menu reads: "Yep, you heard us right. Try it, we dare you ... you'll be hooked just like us. Tastes like caramel, really!"
Actually, it tasted like gravelly soft-serve with olive oil and rock salt. I spat out a half dozen grains of salt too big to melt in my mouth and too unhealthy to swallow.
The strawberry-rhubarb crisp ($7.50) was teeth-chattering sweet. Better was the ricotta-orange fritters ($7) with chocolate dipping sauce and cinnamon sugar.
Service was polite and attentive. That is until a waiter plunked the bill down halfway through dessert one day and said, "Take your time, boss." Boss? I'm sure he meant no slur, yet, the remark was offensive.
Sam's has opportunity aplenty, but the kitchen needs discipline and the front of the house needs refining. Treading water gets one nowhere.
Sam's Chowder House
185 University Ave.
Monday-Friday: 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.
Saturday-Sunday: 11 a.m.-4 p.m.
Sunday-Thursday: 4 p.m.-9 p.m.
Friday-Saturday: 4 p.m.-10 p.m.
Credit cards: yes
Parking: city lots
Alcohol: full bar
Catering: mobile truck
Outdoor dining: street-side tables
Private parties: yes
Noise level: moderate
Bathroom cleanliness: OK