At times it feels as if Sample is trying too hard to be hip. The name, for instance, refers to the trendy small-plates concept around which the menu's built, and the @ sign replacing the letter a refers to the odd fact that you can rent iPads with your meal. The décor is unrelentingly modern, a celebration of building materials and technology — think Acacia Mid-Town on a start-up's budget and with more TVs. And the televisions are playing black and white movies, documentaries or flashy screen savers. This all adds up to a distinctive first impression before you take your first bite.
Chef Todd Butler makes his return to Richmond to lead the kitchen. He attended Virginia Commonwealth University 20 years ago, and in between built a successful career cooking in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Philadelphia. Here he's created a menu of what he calls international small plates, bringing together influences from Cuba, India, France and China, while not eschewing regional American traditions.
The bar is a prominent feature, visually drawing attention to itself with inlaid lights, and with an extensive specialty cocktail menu and well-chosen wine and beer lists. The cocktails, almost entirely of the sweeter variety, are well-made and generous.
The dinner menu is divided into soup and salad, small plates, larger small plates, sides and desserts. Unless you request otherwise, food comes to your table as it's ready, so there are no rules about where to start. It's easy to put together a beautiful meal from the creative menu choices, and it's equally easy to end up with a disjointed clash of dishes with different flavors vying for dominance on your palate. The choice is yours.
Among the small plates, the mushroom escabèche ($11) stands out, served with a warm goat cheese sauce and bread. Rich, creamy and garlicky, the flavors complement each other perfectly. The sweet corn griddle cakes ($10) are nicely paired with andouille sausage, turnips and spicy pepper cress greens.
The spicy crab empanadas ($11) are a disappointment, more cheese than spice or crab. The crispy braised pork belly ($10) is a generous portion with far more belly than pork, served on my visit without the promised crispiness. Once I make peace with eating almost pure fat, I enjoy the excellent seasoning, while the accompanying black-eyed peas and stewed tomatoes cut the richness of the pork fat. By my second visit, I start to get the sense that with a menu as wide-ranging as Sample's, it might be impossible to execute all options well.
The grilled rib-eye steak with French pepper sauce ($15), found on the larger small-plates section of the menu, perhaps is the best dish I sample, and one of the better steaks I've eaten in some time. Perfectly cooked to a medium rare, it's served with a decadent cream sauce. The red curry duck ($16) is surprisingly heavy on coriander and missing red curry's traditional coconut milk, but nevertheless is satisfying with tender, shredded duck served among bok choy, potatoes and mushrooms.
For lunch, much of the menu is the same with the addition of six different panini. Try the chicken salad, which features dried cherries, pine nuts and sunflower seeds ($8). A limited menu is served daily from 3:30-5 p.m.
And save room in your sampling for dessert. The chocolate espresso pot de creme ($7) is especially nice, a rich chocolate custard with a hint of coffee and served with crunchy house-made ginger snaps. The cinnamon doughnut holes ($7) are perfectly executed and leave me wanting more.
The dining experience isn't without problems. Menu descriptions can be oddly inaccurate. "Crusty bread" turns out to be pita, "pommes dauphinoise" (a baked gratin dish) comes spicy and deep-fried. Sample's version more accurately is dauphine potatoes, a distinction that isn't likely to concern most diners. The labels for small and larger small plates don't always match, some of the small plates having as much food as the larger ones. Service is inconsistent. On one visit our server is enthusiastic, knowledgeable and attentive. On another, the server hasn't eaten most of the dishes I ask about, misquotes the beers on tap, and forgets one of our ordered dishes. And for all of its promotion of the tech restaurant concept on its webpage, I never see a customer rent an iPad. Why would they?
In a town filled with excellent dining options, Sample needs to work harder to rise above the crowd. With an ambitious menu and a distinctive vibe, there is clear promise here. But as with many small-plates restaurants, prices creep up on you and for the money you spend, Sample could do more to prove that it's worth the cost. S
1 N. Morris St.
Lunch: Monday - Saturday 11:30 a.m. - 3:30 p.m.
Afternoon menu Monday - Saturday 3:30-5 p.m.
Dinner: Nightly from 5
Bar nightly until 2 a.m.