242 Allen St., Buffalo, NY 14201
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"While there's appeal in the concept of 'sampling' a little bit of something truly unique, Sample's offerings were often miserly portions of common items served better elsewhere."
Small dishes may well be the next big thing in restaurant dining, letting customers experience more during a meal while eating less of each item. China has dim sum, Spain has tapas, and Buffalo has a lot of... well, something else - small American, Italian, and fusion dishes, like those at Carmine's, !Toro!, and now Sample. With the sort of clean, modern interior and graphic design touches that bespeak metropolitan sensibility, Sample gives Allentown another taste - albeit a very limited one - of the small dish trend.
The menu is initially almost amusing: opening it up to find only two pages - one cocktails and desserts, the other for the main meal - we discovered a 10-item "sample menu" that had us asking our server whether we were actually looking at all the options. Apart from items that had been temporarily replaced on the menu, this was everything, he said, so we picked eight of them, plus the most interesting one of the four "small plates," dishes that are counterintuitively named given that they're actually the larger and more expensive of Sample's offerings. Having had tapas, dim sum, and similar meals many times before, our expectation was that we were over-ordering, quite possibly to the point of stuffing ourselves.
We hadn't. After delivering a legitimately good Cucumber and Ginger Sake Sangria - sophisticatedly mild and clean in its flavors, refreshing after a hot day - our server returned with long rectangular dishes with what looked like tiny hors d' oeuvres, four on one, five on the other, as they'd been individually ordered by the two of us. The first plate came with a small cup of Clam Chowder ($3), a Potato Pancake Napoleon ($2.50), a Beef on Weck ($3), a Steak Frite ($3.25), and a French Onion Soup ($3), while the second started with another Beef on Weck and continued through an item called Rice and Beans ($2), a cup of Carrot Ginger Soup ($2.50), and a Poutine ($2.50). This was the majority of our meal, on two small plates, ready to disappear in seconds.
To make one key point, we were ready, willing, and excited at this point for any or all of the individual items to wow us. The only "sample menu" items we'd skipped were the Field Greens and Savory Custard - we'd actually ordered everything that interested us even a little. And the items on the plates sure looked nice. Sample's Beef on Weck was a temporary replacement for its regular Bleu Cheese Burger, and looked like it had been shrunken from a full-sized sandwich to something that could feed a Cabbage Patch Kid. It was almost funny, and indicated that a greater than average amount of work had been put into making the small objects look interesting.
But their looks often seemed to be more important than their tastes. As cute as the tiny kummelweck bun was, its beef was dry and stringy - not a good sample of the original sandwich - and the Potato Pancake was literally a single, dry potato pancake divided into three parts and dotted with a lightly apple-flavored cream. The Steak Frite? A single bite of modestly flavored sirloin on top of a single french fry. Not only was there hardly enough of any item to share with another person, but most of these items barely made it to a second bite, and the first bite was too forgettable to consider ordering another. A Poutine - a small collection of french fries, gravy, and mozzarella mixed in a tiny dish - actually had enough for several bites, but it was just boring. While there's appeal in the concept of "sampling" a little bit of something truly unique, Sample's offerings too often came across as miserly portions of common items that taste better elsewhere.
There were two or three exceptions. We both really liked what was called the Rice and Beans, but turned out to be a deep-fried risotto cake with panko crumb outer breading, served with a few white beans on top; each of us got a bite, and would gladly have had more. Similarly, the French Onion Soup wasn't really a soup in any way; it was a bread cup with onions and traces of broth inside, then cheese on top. It was legitimately nice, but incomplete - sort of like being served the bottom half of a cupcake in both size and experience. By contrast, both the light, buttery Clam Chowder and the gentle Carrot Ginger soup were legitimate soups, albeit just in very small portions. Cats would have loved to lap at either dish.
The last of the items we ordered was the Pork Belly ($11), which was more interesting in size, flavor and preparation - the clearest sign that Sample's kitchen has real talent. Served atop a bed of legitimately delicious mustard-flavored spaetzle and a handful of fresh green brussels sprout leaves, the seared pork arrived with skin on, and considerably more fat than meat. To be more specific, the skin is supposed to be crispy, but was so hard that our knives had problems cutting it; the fat so dominated the meat that one of us gave up on trying to eat it in disgust. For the other of us, it was a beautiful dish and somewhat tasty, but not altogether enjoyable. Rarely does spaetzle overshadow the meat it's served with, but it did here; it should have been offered as a sample.
For obvious reasons, we were still hungry after receiving everything, so we asked our server how big the desserts were - at $6 each, we weren't surprised when he said they were bigger than the standard $3 items, but his finger gestures left us unclear as to how much bigger. So we opted to try three: the Creme Brulee Trio, Coconut Squared, and Sample Some More. Surely we'd be sated after this, right?
Again, not really. The Creme Brulee Trio consisted of three shallow, Chinese restaurant soup-styled spoons with vanilla creme brulee inside: the blueberry one had three tiny blueberries on top, the cherry one had a single cherry in the center, and the standard one had nothing but caramelized sugar on the top. They were all fine, but little more than plain creme brulee subdivided into smaller than typical portions at close to typical pricing. As underwhelming as this was, the Coconut Squared was decidedly worse: another long plate with two dabs of coconut cream, a few pieces of crunchy coconut and walnut candy, and a shot glass-sized portion of lime juice and rum. It looked and tasted like someone had stolen the main dessert, leaving crumbs and a small drink behind. Served in a bowl with more of the cream and candy, it might have made more sense.
But there was one redeeming dessert, the Sample Some More - a double entendre - which made the other two dishes seem lazy and incomplete by comparison. This long plate started with one comparatively large homemade S'more with a graham cracker base, a genuinely good vanilla marshmellow topping, and a rich chocolate and peanut butter filling. Unlike everything else we'd ordered, there was enough here for many bites, each wonderfully balanced between sugary sweetness and rich depth, with dry, moist, and wet textures; the plate also included little pieces of peanut brittle and a cup of hot cocoa. Like the lime juice and rum on the Coconut Squared plate, the cocoa here added little to the dish, yet the rest of what was here was both enjoyable and a decided improvement on the original. We'd order it again.
What ultimately struck us as unusual about Sample was our mutual feeling that we really should have been impressed by the experience, but weren't - a strong concept let down by execution - yet we also weren't completely put off by our meal, either. Had the individual items been more expensive, they would have crossed the line from passable to problematic, mimicking the caricatured micro-portions of 1980s California cuisine (see L'Idiot in L.A. Story). Instead, the dishes here are individually affordable, but collectively unfulfilling, and too few in number to make repeat visits worthwhile. Sample thus rates two stars, a reflection of its efforts to offer a locally novel and interesting approach to dining, and its fact that it's far from fully realizing its potential.