I don't know why it took me so long to check out Sampan. I've been to petty much every restaurant on 13th street - even the newer ones like Little Nonna's and IndeBlue. Despite my own stupidity, the GF and I stopped by for dinner before heading to the Kimmel Center to see Annie.
Sampan's owner and chef, Michael Shulson, also heads up Izakaya at the Borgata Hotel & Casino in AC. He had tapped Top Chef alumn Travis Masar back in 2013 to head up Sampan, but earlier this year, Chef Masar left for Bing Bing Dim Sum.
Sampan's clearly popular for happy hour, with the main bar area surging right after 5PM. The dining area on the outskirts was comfortable and themed appropriately.
Edamame Dumplings [$7]
Truffle, pea shoot, sake broth
I was perusing the menu while waiting for the GF to arrive, so the kitchen sent out a gift of edamame dumplings - definitely a nice touch. The dumplings were expertly made, with creamy edamame and a nice truffle essence that wasn't overpowering. The broth was clear and brought even more depth to each bite. The pea shoots offered great texture as well. The GF was lucky enough to pop in before I finished the quartet!
Ming Mule [$12]
Vodka, lychee, mint ginger
For drinks, she opted for Sampan's take on the Moscow Mule. Served in a mason jar, this tipple had sweetness from the lychee, but not overly so. The undertones of basil offered a nice herbaceousness rounded out by some spice from the ginger. Easy drinking to be sure.
Junmai Fizz [$12]
Sake, sangria, champagne
I was in a bubbly mood, so went with the sake-based concoction. The Junmai fizz had a mellow sweetness that was punctuated by some effervescence from the champagne and fruit from the sangria.
Pork Bao Bun [$7]Shallot, pork belly, mint
If there's ever a reason for me to continue returning to Sampan, it's the pork bao buns. The pork belly was thickly cut, and offered a great dichotomy in textures - gluttonous, unctuous, and crispy. The bite of shallot and freshness of the mint helped to temper the fattiness of the belly, with the soft sweet bun housing it all quite nicely.
Chicken, soy, vinegar
Knowing our penchant for all things Dim Sum Garden, it was a safe bet that we would order the soup dumplings. While not as technically advanced as the ones at DSG, the flavors were spot on. The well-seasoned and moist chicken was enveloped by the umami of the soy and the acidity of the vinegar.
Avocado, cilantro, pickled shallot
When I saw how much crab was being packed into these tacos on Yelp, I knew I had to try them. While I didn't get any sense of avocado, jumbo lump crab was filled into these housemade wonton tacos - no filler here! There was some lingering heat at the end which was nice and offset the sweetness of the crab. The pickled shallots offered some acidity, with the cilantro offering some freshness.
Crispy Spicy Shrimp [$14]
Pickled radish, yuzu, chili aioli
The crispy shrimp were expertly fried and despite being coated in a flavorful yuzu-chili aioli that had a lot of punch, the crispy tempura fry somehow persisted. The pickled radish helped to provide some additional counterbalance to the richness of the aioli.
Dan Dan Noodles [$12]
Pork, sesame, soft egg
A la Han Dynasty, we had to order the dan dan noodles, which were similarly brought out and mixed at our table.
While these featured a thicker noodle and had less of an initially apparent punch in terms of seasoning, the richness of the softly poach egg helped to provide a richness to the dish. The crispy bits of seasoned pork helped to round out each bite.
Korean Fried Chicken [$21]
Crispy garlic, kimchi apple
We really should have stopped at this point, but thinking the fried chicken would be a much smaller portion, I went for it. Clearly I didn't know how Sampan rolled. The fried chicken is a must here - doubly fried a la Korean-style, this rendered the chicken properly crisp and as moist and tender as poultry comes. A thigh, drumstick, and breast was on offer here, with the kimchi apples rubbed in gochujang to provide some countervailing sweetness and spicy heat to the richness of the fried chicken.
I felt like some sweetness was needed to end our night so went with the mini ice cream cones that were much touted by the staff. Unfortunately, this was pretty much the only miss for us. While cute in essence, there wasn't much impact in terms of flavor. We had tastes of chocolate and Twizzler. In reality, we also wanted only one of each, but I think it was assumed that we had each wanted to try one.
Service from the runners to the hostess was on point. Our server Anastasiya was great - she was extremely knowledgeable bout the menu and was friendly. The food is clearly the star here though - don't miss out on the pork belly, edamame dumplings, or the KFC. The drinks are easily quaffable so it's clear that there's an underlying reason behind the power of their happy hour and at their alleyway Graffiti Bar so be sure to check it out!