2124 NE Marshall St.
Why do you make ketchup from scratch? Because apparently you don't experience the fleeting passage of time the way the rest of us do: "I don't even feel the 80-hour weeks," explains the Sample Room's chef, Michael MacKay. "I make everything from scratch--my own ketchup, mustard, everything.
"There is not a can in here. I've been working on my ketchup recipe for over four years. I did research on it: It was originally developed to cover the flavor of bad meat, it was pungent. Now [commercial ketchup] is basically a sugar sauce, while mine has maybe a teaspoon of sugar in the whole batch. I use 200-year-old cooking techniques. Homemade meat loaf with homemade demiglace, I've got veal stock going here five nights a week... That's why I'm putting in 80 or 100 hours a week."
Did you know there was a saloon on this very site in the 1890s called the Sample Room? There was, and, after a hundred-odd years, there is again. The old Sample Room probably served Gluek's beer with its homemade sausages, as the long-gone brewery was only a little ways up the street. And yes, lo and behold, this new Sample Room serves Gluek beer ($3.50) and homemade sausages.
How are those sausages? They're good. The restaurant makes two kinds: a classic pork bratwurst, and a subtle chicken, turkey, garlic, and sage one. There seems to be a nearly endless combination of ways to sample them: à la carte ($3.50 poultry, $4.95 bratwurst), on a bun with caraway sauerkraut and grilled onions ($6.25), or one of each on a plate with mashed potatoes and roasted vegetables ($8.95). There are so many permutations because in addition to Old World farm-table and diner classics made from scratch, the kitchen serves up a world of tiny little dishes to, yes, sample. Some of these offerings are like yesterday's supper leftovers: cold roast beef ($3.95), chilled roast turkey breast ($2.95), potato salad ($2.50). Some of them are more along the lines of haute restaurant classics: gravlax, that cold cured salmon ($6.95); roasted asparagus with a balsamic reduction ($4.95); baked goat cheese with oven-dried tomatoes and basil oil ($5.25).
It's hard to count, because of repeats, specials, and complex side dishes, but I'm guessing the kitchen prepares 50-some items from scratch every day, which is a whole darn lot. And it's even more when you realize that the place is basically a one-room bar: They say they have 52 seats, but a bunch of those are at the grand old bar or at some nearby high-stool bar tables, leaving maybe 10 standard tables for the dinner-destination crowd. Is the Sample Room the only bar in North America making both its own Thousand Island salad dressing and foie gras pâté ($5.95) from scratch? I'm guessing yes.
I'm also guessing this is the very reason why it's been so hard for me to say whether I like the place or not. I have to admit I can't recommend the place at all as a destination restaurant, but I hardly have enough nice things to say about it as a neighborhood bar. How's that for schizophrenia in reviewing?
Consider the meat loaf: $11.95 as a platter with mashed potatoes and roasted vegetables, or cold for $3.50, this classic blend of beef, pork, and veal is dense and bland, just like meat loaf is supposed to be, and while the shallot-mushroom sauce promised on the menu sounds like it will be all highfalutin, the version I had twice tastes just like plain brown gravy, no better, no worse. Garlic mashed potatoes are indeed made with roasted garlic, but so subtly that they just taste like plain mashed potatoes, but slightly better. Basically, this is the kind of plain meat loaf, plain gravy, and plain potatoes you'd be delighted to find at a truck stop off a highway somewhere.
Which is different from a destination restaurant. I couldn't find a single thing on the menu I'd drive out of my way for. Certainly not the ceviche, made with blueberry-size scallops that weren't fresh enough to support the simple lime-juice preparation the dish promises. That the thing was just covered with fiery rings of small, super-hot fresh green chile peppers was even more confounding: Who wants to eat three or four whole chile peppers during an appetizer? Roasted turkey breast ($10.95) was overcooked, dry, and cottony when I tried it. Baked Stickney Hill Goat Cheese with oven-dried roma tomatoes and basil oil ($5.25) was one of those dishes that seemed like a restaurant version dumbed down and reinterpreted by a catering kitchen or ambitious rural aunt: A small casserole dish was layered with disks of goat cheese heated to no great effect and interspersed with halves of oven-dried tomato that were no great addition of taste, and what a half-inch layer of basil-flavored oil was supposed to impart was mysterious. Even the burger (from $7.50) was sort of soft and pallid, lacking the taste of aged good-quality meat or exterior char I look for in great burgers.
Yet, as a neighborhood joint, it's just about perfect. You can get all manner of little highbrow and lowbrow snacky things from 11:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. most days, and until 11:00 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Things like a wedge of Double Crème Brie ($2.50), a giant pile of various marinated olives with herbs ($2.95), a gorgeous disk of browned and very crisp hash browns ($5.95), Grain Belt Premium on tap for $2.95, and a number of wines that are pretty nice, like the grapey and likable Jindalee shiraz ($25.50 a bottle, $5.75 a glass). Most of the wines are also available in themed "flights," where you get three very small, very squat glasses of wine for $6 to $8. I found this idea to be more amusing in concept than in reality, because when I tried red wines this way they were dead hot, and when I tried whites they were refrigerator stale, and in any event they were always in glass Dixie cups, which I apparently have grown too "Princess and the Pea" for. But when I remember the garlic shrimp, I feel bad for carping about the wine shots. The shrimp ($7.95 for an appetizer, $14.95 as an entrée beside mashed potatoes and roasted vegetables) are just your average golf-ball-diameter shrimp, simply sautéed in olive oil and lemon, which makes them creamy, and if I had known about these things when I was ten I would have walked a hundred miles, uphill, through a snow of elephants, in their pursuit. They're sweet, lemony, a little garlicky, completely nonthreatening, the vanilla ice cream of entrées. Now, I admit, they sort of bore me, but there was a time... And then I look at the menu and picture some Northeast family with a ten-year-old gorging on shrimp and Shirley Temples from the bar, a five-year-old son with a fistful of cheese and bratwurst, Mom with a glass of wine and some little olives and things, and Dad with meat loaf and a beer, and I think: Not liking this usable, useful place is just plain mean. I can scarcely imagine a life or lifestyle that wouldn't be enhanced by proximity to the Sample Room. Ladies' we-never-read-the-book book clubs? Check. Grandpa's birthday dinner? Check. Back late from the airport? Check. Restaurant critic searching for something stellar? Eh. There are hardly enough of us to worry about, now, are there?
There are some restaurants you like for their food, some for their glamour, some for their proximity and ease of use. I'm guessing that's why the local neighborhood of Gluek Brewery bigwigs used the original Sample Room back in the day, and I'm guessing that's going to remain its biggest strength in the 21st Century. In the hundred and some years between Sample Rooms, much has changed--our understanding of ketchup, the amount of whale oil in our lanterns, and more, even, than that. Yet there are some habits of time and values of culture that look to be pretty permanent, and I'll enter into that rare firmament the appreciation by all Nordeasters of the all-day, every-day availability of a beer, a bump, and a brat. And if two out of three are local and homemade, so much the better.