Cafe Reviews

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.

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Howard Seftel