Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
If you’re looking to escape Sharples’ grill and specialty bar, look no further than the two weeks of foodie heaven — Philadelphia Restaurant Week. Running from Monday, September 16th to Friday, September 27th (with Saturday the 21st off), Restaurant Week brings an array of lunch ($20) and dinner ($35) tasting menus to diners. And if you’re in the mood for delicious modern Asian cuisine, head to Sampan.
Upon entering the chic restaurant on 13th Street, diners are greeted with splashes of blue light emanating from the walls, creating an intimate and intriguing setting for the meal.
For Restaurant Week, Sampan offers a special dining experience where the entire table selects two small plates and one of each of the following options: satay, meat, appetizers, fish, and sides. So if you dine at Sampan before the 27th, make sure you go with friends who have similar tastes.
After ordering, the plates keep coming and don’t stop until dessert. Our chicken bao buns, shrimp and lobster dumplings, seared scallop satay, and crispy rock shrimp all arrived at once, setting a questionably rushed tone for the evening. While our table was extremely hungry, the pace of the meal was a bit too brisk for our tastes (pun somewhat intended). With the crispy chicken complementing the soft bun, the chicken bao bun was a stunner. It was perfectly spicy with just the right hint of citrus to counterbalance the spice. My only complaint about this dish was that I wanted another.
Following the bao’s explosion of flavors were the mildly disappointing shrimp and lobster dumplings served in miso soup. While not terrible, these dumplings could have been purchased at any other Asian restaurant as the mix of shrimp and lobster failed to offer major tones of either shellfish.
But here to redeem this low was the wonderful seared scallop satay. The freshness of the scallop contrasted nicely with the bacon honey sauce that topped the satay. While the sauce may have been too rich at times, this dish was one of the highlights of the night since the scallops were tender and melted in my mouth.
The real winner of the starters was the huge dish of crispy rock shrimp with yuzu and chili aioli. The shrimp were fried to perfection and the crunch did not succumb to the citrusy glaze. All the dishes so far, bar the underwhelming dumplings, had a hint of complex spiciness that surprised the palate, and the rock shrimp was no exception.
Next came the spice-crusted tuna with an edamame truffle oil purée and fingerling potatoes. Despite thinking that the tuna would be the obvious standout of the dish, I was surprised by the purée’s intense, unusual flavor. The crispy fingerling potatoes and delectable tuna were accented when dipped in the edamame purée, the highlight of the dish.
The extremely friendly waitstaff soon brought out the Kobe beef fried rice and New York strip with bok choy. While the fried rice could have used a bit more spice and seasoning, the steak was cooked to a perfect medium-rare. Once again, the dish’s guest stars took over and were the most memorable aspects of the plate. The bok choy was simply wonderful — perfectly cooked and topped with a rich, soy-like glaze.
After seven courses, Sampan managed to top it off with its signature mini soft serve ice cream cones with two of its rotating signature flavors. During our service, we had the Twizzler vanilla and chocolate Reese’s Pieces, both of which ended the meal on a high note. The Twizzler vanilla was surprisingly delightful as the tartness of the cherry played well off of the creamy vanilla flavors.
Sampan is a perfect Philadelphia Restaurant Week pick with its seven-course-plus dessert tasting menu. While many other restaurants offer two courses and dessert for $35, Sampan offers portions that will leave you satisfied, but not bloated. While some of the dishes’ flavors could have popped more, the majority of the plates highlighted what Sampan and Philadelphia Restaurant Week are all about — bringing quality food to diners at a more affordable than usual price.
Photos by Grant Torre/The Daily Gazette