Sampan Cafe: Crab Claws and Coconut Buns
Can an auto body shop owner-turned-restaurateur deliver on the promise of distinctive Cantonese cuisine for its savvy clientele?
The first thing you notice when you step into Sampan Café, 6116 Franconia Road, is the wall of honor. A large picture frame holds photos of Gary Zhu, the owner of seven auto body and service shops, meeting with President Obama, Washington's presumptive mayor Vincent Gray, and the current governors of Virginia and Maryland.
Mr. Zhu, the president and CEO of the AYT Institute, which trains auto service technicians, is a Hong Kong native who has done so well in his U.S. business ventures that he has been able to expand out of cars and into...restaurants.
The Sampan Café, named by its previous owners, served Szechuan cuisine for over a decade. When Mr. Zhu acquired the property in 2005, he spent two years renovating it before opening the current Cantonese cuisine establishment.
"He kept the old name because it was recognizable by the local clientele, but in his legal filings he changed the name to Haiyang (Chinese for ocean, pronounced hi-gee) to differentiate it from its previous life," said Sai Yee Le, Sampan's manager.
"Sampan is a boat in Chinese, and Mr. Zhu wanted a grander name, one that would mean a big change from the old restaurant," Le said.
When you move into the large one room restaurant, you notice most of the linen covered tables are large, to accommodate families, not couples. As you are seated at a table for four, and are automatically brought a pot of Oolong tea and a glass of water with plenty of ice, you realize there is no Muzak playing.
Instead, you are in a soothingly peaceful environment, a noticeable contrast to the bustle of the Franconia Center and the thoroughfare traffic just outside the door.
Three chefs, brought from Hong Kong, are responsible for the thick menu you are then handed. The seven page booklet lists pan fried turnip cakes, steamed coconut cream bun, boneless pig knuckle, oyster ginger scallion casserole, and crab claws, at prices ranging from $1.75 for an appetizer to $23 for a diner entre.
To complicate your meal selection, aside from the second menu (featuring 27 Dim Sum choices), a board listing the day's extra specials featured further temptations including a mango mousse for dessert.
"All of our staff is Chinese and speak Chinese," said Lee in response to my unspoken query after he had gently called out my order and then requested more tea for me.
My two finds at Sampan Café were the crab claws and the steamed coconut cream bun. The crab claws are kiwi-sized butterflied shrimp that are stuffed with crab meat, smothered in flour and deep fried. The tasty morsels are crispy on the outside, spongy as you bite in and have the consistency of stuffing in the inside.
What strikes you, when the bite is in your mouth, is that as opposed to a fusion of taste you actually taste each layer distinctively. Similarly surprising was that each layer is successively and appreciably hotter in temperature. Bite this claw slowly less you burn your tongue on the central layer.
The steamed coconut cream bun is an unexpectedly delicate, chewy, golf-sized dessert. It had sesame seeds on the outside, a tender doughy interior, and a hot (temperature) center of dark coconut cream. The center of this desert was a subtle (maybe too much so if you are a coconut fan) mixture of dough, sugar and coconut. It was chewy rather than creamy giving it a consistency of guava paste rather than the expected coconut cream of its namesake pie.
Mr. Zhu found a formula for his auto repair business and seems well on his way to duplicate his success with his Cantonese cuisine venture.