A frustrating incongruity of my advancing age is that, despite my waistline’s ceaseless expansion, my appetite is undergoing a definite contraction. Long gone are the days when a 24-ounce steak and a potato with all the trimmings or a two-pound lobster with drawn butter are at all appealing—or even digestible.
So I find myself drawn to local restaurants that offer satisfying “small plates.” The line between these and appetizers is increasingly blurred, but while appetizers are traditionally meant for one, small plates are made to be shared. One of my favorite restaurants for this genre is a spot in “Nordeast” called The Sample Room.
Chef Michael McKay’s kitchen puts out more than two-dozen small-plate options that are made from scratch every day, ranging from biscuit pot pie with pulled chicken to pan-fried crab cakes with red pepper sour cream. Most are bargain priced.
Sampling doesn’t end with the food. Libations—wine, bourbon, Scotch, tequila, liqueurs—also come in a flite-tasting format.
Dishes change seasonally, but a handful of items have deservedly achieved permanent menu status. One is the warm three-meat loaf served with homemade ketchup. Another is a superb warm Camembert sided with caramelized onions. Two more permanent fixtures I’m partial to are a grilled Grain Belt–steamed bratwurst, and a plate of grilled asparagus drizzled with balsamic vinegar.
Warm Three-Meat Loaf is a signature item, both for the thin slices of pork, veal, and beef that have been baked with sweet peppers and caramelized onions and for the homemade ketchup that comes with it. Chef McKay makes it from scratch, a lengthy, labor-intensive process that starts with overripe Roma tomatoes, garlic, onions, cinnamon sticks, and just the merest hint of sugar and ends with a condiment that delivers real taste.
The gooey baked Camembert cheese and browned onions are pretty elemental, but heavenly at the same time.
Like wines, beers and other libations, “cellos”—infusions of pure alcohol—come in flites: limoncello (from lemon skins), orangecello (guess), and nocello (walnuts).
Good to Know
Be forewarned, this is a rather cramped and noisy spot (probably much like the saloon—also called The Sample Room—that occupied the space a century ago). However, once the weather warms up, there’s a pleasant outdoor patio that’s a bit more laid back. Then again, it’s where the cigarette puffers hang out.
And, yes, for those who aren’t in a sampling mood, the restaurant does dish up entrÃ©e-sized helpings of some items along with sandwiches, soups, and salads.