Commune, once gushed over as the New York transplant that would usher in an era of hipper-than-thou cred for the Westside, closed last year in a defeated trickle. What went wrong? The insinuating interior of red and black, the juicy wine list and that lovely upstairs bar with a view of the Midtown skyline couldn't mask a lethal glitch. The New American food was expensive and inconsistent.
And thus, despite a rescue chef imported from San Francisco and some goofily enticing promotions (Mambo lessons with your mojito, anyone?), Commune languished in an up-and-down limbo. When it dimmed its sanguine lights for the last time, no one mourned so much as wondered: Who could claim that immense, seemingly subterranean space and make a success out of it?
Credit Steven Chan and Howard Cheun for taking an inspired stab at it. They wisely divided the place into two concepts: Sampan, an upscale plunge into modern Chinese cooking; and Cafe Sampan, a jaunty sliver of a spot that serves cheap, familiar Asian-lite fare. (The second floor bar, incidentally, will be revived this fall as Suzy Wong's Lounge.)
Sampan could easily pass as the set of a retro spy flick. The dining room, past the foyer with its cascading wall of prismatic beads, is straight out of The Man with the Golden Gun. Black walls, misleading glass, sly mirrors. Who's who? What's what? Servers materialize from behind a hazy purple partition. Couples disappear into elegant golden booths encrypted with Chinese characters. I was unnerved one night to find that a previously unnoticed door had been opened onto the austere interior courtyard, which shares space with Bacchanalia's new venture, Quinones. It broke the cinematic enchantment.
I find myself spellbound once again, though, when I bite into one of the lobster and crab rolls. Tablemates on each of my three visits requested we order them, and I could never deny them the contrasting pleasures: The plate comes with both a crispy fried spring roll and an herbaceous, cooling summer roll. Each warrants numerous dunks in a glossy citrus-mint dip.
Sampan's menu zigzags between respectful renderings of traditional Chinese dishes and pan-Asian constructs that incorporate Thai, Korean and Japanese influences. The classic Chinese options, in my experience, tend to deliver the truest, cleanest flavors.
Aficionados of Chinese banquets will relish the taste of the anise-flavored duck, a cold plate of rubicund slices in a gentle sauce that suggests licorice and caramel. Lump crabmeat soup is a variation on egg drop. The cumulous texture belies the snap of ginger you find in every other spoonful.
Eggplant stuffed with shrimp paste, a dim sum standby, is one of the most memorable versions I've had. The fried skin of the lithe strips of eggplant gives a moment of crunch before the creamy interior oozes out, and the basil sauce offers a frisky jab of garlic that doesn't overwhelm the other ingredients.
But the precision of the eggplant isn't always duplicated. A muddy, overly sweet black bean sauce cancels out the pleasantly briny qualities of the mussels it blankets. Steak goes soggy under a profusion of black peppercorn sauce. And the Jabba the Hut of crab cakes, a monstrous fried beast in a puddle of red curry, is saved only by clever bits of kumquat that brighten the otherwise indistinct mass of bready crust and filler.
And I suppose I should mention the slow night factor. Sampan, unlike its predecessor, has been judicious about putting the word out, and though the dining room starts to fill toward the end of the week, you will still find a mostly empty restaurant on Mondays and Tuesdays. Sadly, that can mean a couple things. Service falls into a rut: A glass of wine gets forgotten, or servers will peer at you overly eagle-eyed. A restaurant needs steady business to facilitate its rhythm.
Same goes with the food. Sea bass, one of the menu's highlights, was transcendental on a Saturday. The flesh (over a custardly block of tofu) was pristinely sweet; the chunky, Hong-Kong style black bean sauce had balance and nuance; the temperature was just right when we greedily began to divvy it up. On a Tuesday night? The sea bass tasted just past its peak, the sauce seemed overly assertive and the dish had gone tepid (the vicious air conditioning blowing directly over us couldn't have helped).
Ditto for meaty chunks of salt and pepper calamari. On a busy night, the calamari's tempura batter shattered between my teeth. When it was quiet, they were oddly soggy -- though the nicely pliant texture of the squid itself was compelling enough that we cleaned the plate nonetheless.
And yet, no matter the day of the week, unexpected joys reveal themselves at each meal. The kitchen has a confident way with duck, whether roasted and lacquered with plum sauce or proffered as sausage with daikon and chili paste as a thoughtful twist on kimchee. Even though I'm tempted to skip dessert and mosey over to see what Star Provisions' bakery is selling for half-off, I'm always glad I stick around to linger over the lustrous chocolate cube layered with frothy mousse.
And to dawdle in this intoxicatingly disorienting room. How cool would it be to play laser tag in here?
Taqueria del Sol and Figo have lines coiling out the door, but we're swinging around the back of the Westside complex to lunch at Cafe Sampan. There's no wait, but neither is the place deserted. Tables are filled both in the slim, cheery room and outside on the concrete patio and around the courtyard. We plant ourselves inside, under a picture of Chairman Mao.
A doe-eyed server rushes over to take our order. She hustles out water and an undrinkably cloying Thai iced tea, though she then vanishes for a good long time No problem. It's the middle of a busy day and my colleagues and I take turns jogging out the door to answer cell phone calls.
When our meal at last arrives, one image keeps flashing through my brain: food court. It all tastes like Asian food you get at the mall. "Tangerine chicken salad" is a hilariously misleading moniker: The greens and chicken chunks are showered with canned mandarin oranges, which technically do belong under the tangerine classification.
Singapore curry noodles, with careless bits of chicken and vegetables, have no soul behind them. Bland wanton soup tastes the same as anywhere. Mandarin fried rice with sausage has some porky zip to it. Surprisingly, the bowl of deep-fried sesame chicken over rice has the most personality. A little sweet, a little saucy. I push the bowl to the center of the table, and we all polish the chicken off and leave the remainder of the meal uneaten.
About that time, I look up to notice three tables are still occupied in the cafe. I try to catch the attention of our server across the room, but she's gathering her purse and ... traipsing out the door? Yep. She's outta here without a backward glance. Um, guess her shift was done. Buh-bye.
We sit for about five minutes and, when it's evident that no one else is going to check in on us, we head to the front and ask for our bill. The server I approach looks confused and then apologetic, and he snags our ticket in a hurry. I'm still a little hungry. Maybe I should get in line at Taqueria?
After that experience, I'd essentially written off Cafe Sampan. A few days later, however, I note on the restaurant's website that traditional dim sum is being offered on the weekends. I dig me some dim sum. Hmm. I'll give it one more shot.
I'm happy I do. The crowd is even livelier on Sundays, and everyone wants tables in the courtyard. Kids squeal and make up modified hopscotch games in the rock gardens. More than 40 small dishes are available from the kitchen -- no roving dim sum carts in this condensed space. Dumplings -- shrimp har gau, pork siu mai -- have a rustic edge to them. What they lack in presentation they make up for in fresh, honest flavor. You'll see some of the same dishes from Sampan with the exact characteristics. The shrimp-stuffed eggplant sport the same crispy-silky push-pull; mussels are still coated in a blurry sauce.
But if you live on the west or south side of town and don't feel like trekking all the way to Buford Highway for dim sum, consider this a worthwhile destination. Turns out with both Sampan and Cafe Sampan, the weekend's the time to be here.
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