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Slow Boat From China

Sampan, 668 North 44th Street (COFCO Chinese Cultural Center), Phoenix, 602-286-9888. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, dim sum buffet, 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; Dinner, 5 to 10 p.m., seven days a week.

Life would be a lot easier if we didn't have standards. Everyone would be good-looking, in his or her own way. Everyone's opinion on every issue would have comparable merit. Every skill, along whatever line, would be equally celebrated. And every form of behavior would be worthy, as long as it didn't impinge on our own freedom of action.

In some ways, it's an attractive ideal. In one stroke, we could banish words like "ugly," "stupid," "talentless" and "unfit" from our vocabulary. In an undifferentiated democracy of equals, nobody's self-esteem would ever suffer.

But there's a downside. We'd be living in a world that wouldn't be able to recognize "beauty," "intelligence," "ability" or "responsibility." Nothing could be objectively "better"; nothing could be objectively "worse." Without standards, our judgments would ultimately have to rest strictly on our feelings.

But it sure would make my job easier. That's because I wouldn't have had to make an effort to understand exactly why I felt vaguely dissatisfied with Sampan, even though I enjoyed my meals there.

It's the latest Chinese restaurant venture in the COFCO Chinese Cultural Center, a high-profile government enterprise directed by the People's Republic. To underline its importance, the Chinese ambassador came to town a few months ago to mark the official opening.

After much reflection, I believe I've identified the sources of my discontent. First, I came to Sampan giddy with anticipation. After all, this isn't a neighborhood, one-from-column-A, one-from-column-B chop suey parlor. It's the Chinese government's showplace restaurant in our town. Second, once I walked in, I may have been overwhelmed by Sampan's stunning design. The place is gorgeous. And third, after making my way through much of the extensive menu, the Cantonese and Pacific Rim-accented fare, good as it is, couldn't meet all my expectations. What made my disappointment even keener was the nagging suspicion that the kitchen may have been holding back, too timid to operate at full throttle in our desert Southwest outpost.

A sampan is just a small, flat-bottomed Chinese rowboat. So give Sampan's designer credit for creating a sophisticated and elegant look from so banal a starting point. The eye-catching bar is shaped like a sampan, right down to the wooden prow. Two sets of tanks--one with colorful tropical fish for display, one with a variety of aquatic life for eating--add nautical atmosphere, as do the hanging fish nets, studded with shells.

The room practically gleams with wood accents, from the carved detail along the edge of the ceiling to the polished doors leading to the private dining rooms for big groups. Striking pots and lifelike carp sculptures are set throughout the dining area. A large, sampan-scene mural dominates the back wall, while museum-quality vintage photos of homeland harbors hang everywhere else. (I wish the pictures were for sale at the restaurant's gift shop, instead of the stuffed panda bears.) Tables are set with linen tablecloths, chopsticks and Western cutlery, and dinner plates are oddly perched atop inverted bamboo baskets. The only design misstep is aural: piped-in elevator music, assaulting diners' ears with kitschy versions of everything from "Moonlight Sonata" to "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head."

You can avoid the music on the lovely patio. It looks out over the COFCO Center's serene garden, complete with reflecting pool, koi ponds and graceful Chinese pavilions. The entire setup, inside and out, gives the impression that no expense has been spared.

Too bad the appetizers don't reinforce that impression. They get the meal off to a sluggish start. Fried spring rolls and sliced barbecued pork are familiar starter nibbles, but Sampan's don't have much distinction. The spring rolls are supposed to be filled with seafood, but I sure couldn't detect any taste of the sea. The pork, meanwhile, should have been succulent, but the only adjective that springs to mind is "tough."

Soy-marinated chicken is simply innocuous, and the hacked-up roast duck with plum sauce isn't much livelier. Flash-fried spinach studded with pine nuts comes loaded with salt. The one appetizer treat: a cold plate of shredded, crunchy jellyfish, teamed with a zesty chile sauce.

Sampan emphasizes seafood, and ocean fare is one of the kitchen's two strengths. Check out the tanks to see what's swimming. Snapper usually is. Ask for it "boiled" (the menu actually means "steamed"), not sauteed or deep-fried--steaming preserves the delicate flavor. You can choose from a variety of sauces, as well. The snappy ginger and onion sauce makes the most gastronomic sense.

Perhaps the single most interesting dish here is the pan-fried "cutlet" of cod, draped with a vigorous XO sauce. The thick slab of fish is meaty and flaky, while the sauce ranges over the entire scale of flavor notes. Two bites, I predict, and you'll be hooked.

 

Almost in the same class is #31, a mix of shrimp, scallops, squid and veggies resting in a fried taro "nest." The combination of textures--crunchy, soft, firm--is just as appealing as the combination of flavors.

Most of the same ingredients, with the addition of braised chunks of grouper (a mild, white-fleshed Caribbean species), also come together in one of Sampan's bubbling clay pots. It's tasty enough, but I couldn't help wishing that the ingredients had been simmered in a more energetic sauce than the mild oyster sauce the kitchen favors.

I know the kitchen has such a sauce, because it comes with #37, an entertaining blend of diced, sauteed scallops, ham and crispy fried noodles, which you scoop onto iceberg lettuce leaves and dip into a seafood sauce. This dish brings together a well- conceived blend of Asian flavors.

The kitchen takes chicken to the brink of greatness, and just about pushes it over the edge. The baked whole spring chicken gets doused with wine sauce, wrapped in foil and then steamed. (The menu also claims it's "flamed," although whatever flaming was done took place outside our view.) When the foil is opened, the aroma hits you right in the snout. The sauce is striking, pungent, sharp and decidedly different. And the bird itself, as you might imagine, is unbelievably juicy.

Less exotic, but no less intense, is #43, skinless, unboned pieces of roast chicken, glazed with honey, salt and Worcestershire sauce. This bird can fly.

The beef dishes, however, only plod. And the reason is no mystery: second-rate beef. Certainly no one could complain about the lusty tomato sauce that coats slices of braised tenderloin and a mound of sweet onions hissing on a sizzling iron skillet. But no amount of sauce could disguise the beef's chewy shortcomings. Even when the beef is sliced real thin, as in #52, where it's paired with leeks and oyster sauce, the preparation couldn't overcome the quality deficiency.

Sampan is no noodle house. Neither the chow fun, made from thick rice noodles, nor the mildly curried Singapore noodles do anything except fill you up.

Vegetables get mixed treatment. Eggplant fans should head directly to the Clay Pot section and zero in on #64. It showcases luscious Japanese eggplant combined with minced pork, in a spicy chile sauce that will open your nasal passages. There's also a sauteed veggie dish with a coconut curry sauce just offbeat enough to keep diners from dozing. But Lo Hon vegetables, a mushroom-heavy, one-dimensional mix, will induce narcolepsy after one bite.

Desserts are the antidote. Several of them will keep you up, if only in self-defense. That's because they're not adjusted to Western palates. Test your risk quotient with Hong Kong almond cream, a sweet, watery, puddinglike confection. If that's too tame, move on to sweetened Chinese green bean cream, enlivened with crunchy slivers of seaweed. Least threatening is what the menu calls custard "tard." No doubt there's a typo here. I only hope it's the "d" and not the "a."

If your goal is to loosen your belt, schedule Sampan's Sunday, all-you-can-eat buffet brunch. (There's a less elaborate one on Saturdays.) For $16.80, it's not a bad deal, especially once you factor in the endless mimosa refills.

Although management calls it a dim sum brunch, that's a stretch. There's no merry-go-round of carts wheeling about the room, bearing brunch-time delicacies. Instead, there's a mix of dim sum favorites and predictable entrees laid out in chafing trays.

The dim sum section is where you want to make your major strategic assault. Seafood rolls, pork buns, shrimp dumplings, shrimp-filled sticky rice wrapped in lotus leaf, turnip cakes, pot stickers and soft rice noodles rolled around barbecued pork all provide midday satisfaction.

The Peking duck station merits a tactical strike. The cook carves a piece of meat from a glistening duck breast, places it in a pancake lined with hoisin sauce, throws in some scallions and cucumber and then folds it up tight. What's not to like?

Don't indiscriminately blitz the entree trays. Most of them aren't worthy targets. Not surprisingly, the beef in the Hong Kong steak and Mongolian beef isn't any better than the beef served at other times during the week. Sweet and sour pork, kung pao chicken and chicken in satay sauce are strictly institutional. Flavorless hot and sour soup is a complete dud, while the lackluster spareribs are not the stuff dreams are made of, either.

But a few dishes deserve a place on your plate. Salmon in black bean sauce is wonderfully moist and fragrant. Baked chicken breast is a temptation worth yielding to. And peel-your-own shrimp, crusted with salt and pepper, makes the time pass quickly.

 

Give Sampan credit for not putting out apple pie and chocolate cake on the dessert table. Mango pudding and the sweet barbecued pork turnover are the most accessible sweets. Sweet almond tofu is less so. I'm partial to the rice ball filled with sweetened bean paste, but it's an acquired taste. The gelatinous sweet chestnut cake, however, is an acquired taste I've yet to acquire.

Sampan isn't the knockout I was hoping for. Too many dishes lack the spark of genius. But enough of them hint at it to give me hope. Let's see if Sampan can turn potential into achievement.

Eggplant clay pot
$7.90
Baked spring chicken
11.90
Pan-fried cod
12.90
Green bean cream
2.

50

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miles
Sampan Seafood Restaurant

668 N. 44th St.
Phoenix, AZ 85008-6506

602-273-7268


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