Chef Sam Richman does comfort food his way, with serious skill, simple surroundings, and a sense of humor.
Sammy’s Deluxe had me at corndogs.
My companion and I arrive for our reservation at the tail end of happy hour—when these snacks on a stick are offered at the bar—and order two with the excitement of stock traders getting in a final buy before the closing bell. Hot from the fryer, chef Sam Richman’s corndogs have a thin, crisp cornmeal crust encasing a juicy Morse’s Sauerkraut hot dog—not so far removed from the fairground version as to be unrecognizable, but much more memorable.
Since opening Sammy’s Deluxe in the summer of 2016, Richman has quietly assembled a devoted following of his small, regularly changing menu of homestyle dishes that include a few throwbacks, such as the happy-hour corndogs. The dessert list includes a “cheap and delicious” ice cream sandwich that is sourced at the supermarket, as are the potato chips served with the “Grass-Fed Cheeseburger!!!” Exclamation points follow several menu listings, notably the “Friggin’ Pickle Samplah!!!” the “TURBO Allen’s!!!” cocktail (Allen’s Coffee Flavored Brandy, cream, and vodka), and a white wine listed as “Not your 1982 sweet Vouvray!! SO DAMN GOOD!!!”
In person, however, Richman is less animated than his menu suggests. He greets diners with a friendly smile and assists in delivering dishes to our table and others, yet he seems more comfortable in the kitchen. His training includes posts at the haute culinary bastions Jean-Georges and WD~50 (now closed) in New York City and the Fat Duck in London, and he was the opening chef at upscale Gran Electrica in Brooklyn. (Richman was praised by the New York Times for his influence on Gran Electrica, described as “elevated yet rustic, chic yet homey,” a foreshadowing of the ethos at Sammy’s Deluxe.) In 2013 Richman moved to Maine and became the chef at Salt Water Farm at Union Hall in Rockport; when it closed two years later, he hosted a series of Mexican pop-up dinners before opening his own place in the former Sunfire Grill space on Rockland’s Main Street.
The storefront restaurant is deeply unpretentious, with widely spaced tables covered in colorful oilcloth, high-backed wooden chairs, and lacy white curtains that soften the plate-glass windows facing the street. Mismatched water glasses, including mason jars, hold silverware and paper napkins at each place setting. Near the entrance, a lounge of sorts is defined by an upright piano, a flea-market sofa, and a coffee table; on the far side of the dining room, a large shelving unit displays boxes of kosher salt, cans of Dijon mustard, and other provisions, along with cookbooks and vintage tableware.
Two friends join us, which allows us to order almost everything on the menu (perhaps tasking the patience of the kind server with our enthusiasm). Our table-full of starters includes smoked fish, the aforementioned pickle plate (curry and cumin–scented cauliflower, crunchy half-sour cucumber spears, and zingy slaw), and the “excellent, freshly-milled bread and butter.” The latter is an additional charge and worth it, with a toasty crust and a tangy, tender crumb that, spread with the softened butter, is immensely satisfying. Richman smokes his own seafood, including locally raised eel from American Unagi in Thomaston, which he blends with potatoes, herbs, and cheddar and stuffs into jalapeno halves topped with toasted bread crumbs for a fun and tasty riff on the ubiquitous popper. The smoked haddock “snacks” (one of a few menu constants) are a crock of flaked, lightly smoked fish served with more of the excellent bread, thinly sliced white onion, and Dijon mustard. I could easily make a meal of the haddock and Richman’s chicories salad, an assortment of bitter greens tossed with Bulgarian sheep’s milk feta and crunchy slivers of apple and celery and sprinkled with buttery toasted breadcrumbs. Similar crumbs made from rye bread top an equally delicious and well-balanced salad of roasted beets with homemade yogurt, grated fresh horseradish, and a crunchy blend of seeds: flax, sesame, sunflower, and poppy.
Richman’s main dishes lean toward comfort food, yet feature more depth than heft. Tender beef brisket with mushrooms, barley, and horseradish in a rich broth is the dish you wish your grandma used to make, and a slab of roasted cod on a bed of potatoes, leeks, and sweet winter spinach with garlic broth is somehow earthy and refined at the same time. Richman’s training and experience show in his spot-on seasoning; the broth with the cod is just lightly scented with garlic, and the heat in a zesty linguine puttanesca does not overwhelm the optional addition of delicate crabmeat from nearby Port Clyde. Napped with cheese and Richman’s “special sauce” on a lightly toasted sesame seed bun, the cheeseburger deserves its exclamation points.
“The simplest things are delicious,” says Richman. “I love the traditional New England dishes, but I like to lighten them up; instead of fat, herbs, vinegar, and spices add flavor. I don’t want to make food that’s kooky and contrived. Even if it’s a new dish, I want it to have an old soul, to remind you of something you’ve eaten a dozen times.”
I can see why the old-school ice cream sandwich might be appealing, but we decide to share creamy chocolate mousse gilded with whipped cream and chocolate shavings, which is old-school, too, in a delicious, Julia Child–esque way. Richman also brings out a dish of grapefruit granita, and we slurp up bracing, citrusy, salt-tinged spoonfuls, decid- ing it is a perfect contrast to the mousse. Heading for the door I glance into the open kitchen and am stunned to see that Richman turns out such excellent food on a four- burner glass-top electric stove, exactly like the one in my house. “I opened so quickly and didn’t have any money, so I used what was there,” Richman says. “I’ve gotten used to the stove; it’s pretty zippy, actually.”
Richman’s cooking shows finesse nurtured in far more sophisticated kitchens, yet there’s something about the stove, the dining room’s humble furnishings, and the shelves of canned goods that speaks of a true Yankee spirit, of doing well with what you have. It seems to me that Sammy’s Deluxe is perfectly located in Rockland, a community that celebrates both its fishing fleet and its art museums, its traditions, such as the Maine Lobster Festival, and edgy happenings such as the warehouse parties of the Camden International Film Festival. With culinary skill, a sense of humor, and a damn good corndog, Richman has made his own elemental addition to the city’s mix.