Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Sample Room

This week, I needed a place that would be quiet and calm and roomy enough to have a working meal. Our late lunch had turned into something more like an early dinner, and we didn't have a lot to get done, but we didn't need music blaring (Seriously- what's with the loud music everywhere? Have you been to the basement in Macy's lately? Don't even bother.), or someone hovering over us trying to get the table turned. I thought of the Sample Room at the last minute. Hadn't been there in a few years.

So glad I went back.

What a wonderful place this is. If you don't already know about it, you're unlikely to have ever noticed it, tucked away against the river on Marshall in Northeast. It doesn't draw a lot of attention to itself. What it does do is a fantastic job, casually, quietly, and with the kind of seemingly effortless attention to detail that is, judging by visits to any number of other establishments, much harder than it looks.

First off, the concept is inspired. In keeping with the name, this is the place you always wanted every other restaurant to be. How often have you looked at a menu and been equal parts thrilled and frustrated because you had to choose something, thereby denying yourself some other delight? Here, they see that coming, and give you an easy out. You can, quite literally, sample. The entire menu, if the mood strikes. I get a little tear in my eye just typing that.

Such an option, admittedly a stroke of genius, is almost a necessity when you grab your unassuming, one-page menu and start reading. This is not everyday fare. Feel like a burger? How about a half pound of house-ground beef stuffed with pork belly and smoked gouda? Nachos? Try bleu cheese and peppered bacon melting slowly over warm kettle chips and caramelized onions. This is food to make you giggle, it's so good. Even the charcuterie is house-made, and I don't know about y'all, but if you start making me sausage, you are pretty much my best friend. Can you read a word like "applewurst" and not feel a little bit better about the whole world? I can't.

Part of what makes all of this even more wonderful is that The Sample Room may be the world's least pretentious restaurant. Walking in, the first impression is more classy bar than fine dining. The lighting is dim but adequate, booths are ample, nothing feels crowded, and did I mention the noise? There isn't any. How wonderful, and how rare, to sit across a booth from someone and hold a conversation without raising your voice. The whole place feels like an oasis, a place to check out of your crazy day for a while and remind yourself why you work so hard the rest of the time.

As if all of this weren't reason enough to go, The Sample Room also offers a surprisingly good value. The most expensive small plate on the menu was $9. Three of us shared those crazy nachos, hummus, an artichoke gratin, wild mushroom fettuccine, red curry pork shank, sublime pot roast and four or five grown-up drinks. With a generous tip, we rounded up to $75. I don't think you could get three apps and three entrees with drinks at a Chili's for that kind of money. And even if you could, you'd still be at Chili's, and I would weep for you.

Next time you're feeling overstressed, make the pilgrimage to Northeast and take a couple of hours to recharge your batteries in this remarkable café. Your soul will be happy you made the trip.


  1. Very entertaining and very well written. Loved the review.

  2. You are a genius. I love to read your reviews. Makes me want to get on a plane now and eat at the sample room. Which I could do because I work for Delta.

  3. Sonya, come! I will take you there.