A Hit -- But Not Yet

DINING OUT

January 19, 1992|By JANICE BAKER

The hours and menu at Sam's Waterfront Cafe, reviewed in today's issue of the Sun Magazine, have changed since the restaurant was visited. Winter hours are 4 p.m. to 11 p.m. Tuesdays to Saturdays; 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sundays; closed Mondays. Italian fare will replace Chesapeake Bay specialties until the spring.

It's a terrific location among boats that seem to get larger every year. The condominiums have big picture windows, big living rooms and big chandeliers, and to make sure nobody misbehaves, a security guard in a hut out by the road watches who comes and goes. Sound effects are water lapping against pilings and bird squawks.

Except for a bright dab of red in Sam's sign, Sam's building blends entirely with the condominiums along the area's winding roads. Its glassy construction, a wooden deck outside, and ample exposure to water and sky recommend it as an attractive place for a noon crab cake or a twilight glass of wine. Why, then -- my impression -- isn't Sam's a breakaway success? Too hard to find? Too out of the way? Unaccountable mysteries?

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

First the building housed an excellent Dominique's. When that pulled out, it became a dull Sam's. My first thought a few months back, when Michael Dalesio took it over, was good for Sam's. Mr. Dalesio's experience and success at Dalesio's in Little Italy, and subsequently at Michael's Riviera Grill in the Brookshire Hotel suggest he has the ability to make a restaurant come alive. In the long run, I'm probably right. In the short run, though, Sam's still has a way to go.

We began with a cup of minestrone ($1.95), a cup of seafood chowder ($1.95) and appetizers of marinated goat cheese ($5.95) and Nantucket mussels ($4.95). The minestrone had some character; it hadn't been powdered or canned. The circles of pasta in it were filling, and the usual vegetables gave it flavor -- potato, tomato, celery and carrot. However, the unremarkable seafood chowder seemed short on seafood and long on juiced tomato.

The idea behind the goat cheese dish was good: goat cheese positioned among just-cooked shallots and onion, and topped with roasted peppers. The slice of cheese tasted like a cross between goat cheese and cream cheese, though, and was much too large -- 4 ounces at least. Also, the cheese and onions lay in a quarter-inch of almost tasteless oil, and the scanty two blades of red pepper over the cheese hadn't been roasted.

"These mussels are going to come with the same nasty tomato sauce that's always served with mussels," one of my companions predicted, but he had to eat his words. Tomatoes, yes, there were a few, and what seemed akin to a mild tomato soup, but the sauce wasn't hackneyed, and the dozen and a half mussels were fresh and silky.

Our entrees came with salads of mostly uncut, untorn lettuce leaves mixed with one pepperoncini and slices of cucumber, winter tomato and red pepper, all dressed with a sweetened cream. Yes, simple cream, made sweet.

Our one dud of an entree was whole wheat fettuccine with two versions of sage tomato sauce and fresh mozzarella ($12.75). It wasn't the pasta that didn't work, but the two thin slices of cold mozzarella plunked over the top, and the two featureless, bland sauces, which to our tastes scarcely differed except that one was part cream.

We were amazed by the immense size of a grilled veal chop ($25), but thought it tasted marginally old. It was served with what the menu called "garlic chips" -- garlic-flavored, silver-dollar-sized pancakes, and with a "couscous timbale" -- a molded, almost rigid dome of chopped peppers and semolina that tasted cooked in commercial chicken broth. Like two other entrees, the chop came with sliced, sauteed yellow squash and zucchini (the ubiquitous vegetable of the late '80s and early '90s, and an unimaginative choice outside of summer).

An entree of scallops pepperonata ($15.95) was livelier -- fresh scallops sauteed with yellow and red peppers (uncharred), but there was such a small amount of ham, my friend eating the scallops at first couldn't find any. (The menu called it prosciutto, but ours looked and tasted like plain pink ham.) It was accompanied by squashes and some unremarkable rice, which also accompanied our best entree, a simple plate of grilled salmon ($16.95) whose texture was moist and firm and whose tastes were fresh.

Desserts were uninspired. We tried a creamy, mild chocolate mousse ($3), which tasted made with an artificial sweetener, a chocolate cake ($3.75) that included bready cake-mix-style layers, and a blueberry cheesecake with a still floury-edged blueberry layer.

What we didn't like was partly counterbalanced by what we liked. A lovely 1989 Morgan Monterey chardonnay was worth remembering. Also, we liked our courteous and observant waiter. Unfortunately, he seemed to be the only person working the room, so a couple of times we fell to raiding neighboring tables for forks and spoons. But the atmosphere was come as you are and do your own thing, e.g., the man down the way who ate his dinner wearing a baseball cap backward. He made us wish we owned a boat. Or a deck. Or a baseball cap. Or that it was noon in May.Next: Prime Rib

SAM'S WATERFRONT CAFE,

2020 Chesapeake Harbour Drive, East, Annapolis,

(410) 263-3600 or (410) 269-0300

HOURS: Lunch daily 11:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.; dinner Sundays to Thursdays 5 p.m. to 9 p.m., until 10 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; Sunday brunch 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.

ACCEPTS: All major credit cards

FEATURES: Mediterranean and Chesapeake Bay cuisine

NO-SMOKING AREA: No

WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes

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