Sam’s by the Beach in Santa Monica offers a seamless union of California fresh and eastern Mediterranean flair. The restaurant’s fusion of flavors and influences was imagined by Owner and Founder Samer (Sam) Elias, who initially operated the beachside location as Canyon Bistro until 2000, when he remodeled and renamed the restaurant Sam’s by the Beach.
In order to achieve the tastes he had been dreaming about, Sam called Oscar Benitez, a great Italian chef whom he had known since 1992, when they both worked at a restaurant called Pazzia. After hiring Benitez as head chef, together they created a stunning seasonal menu that incorporates unlikely flavor combinations and modern twists on classic recipes. Sam’s Syrian roots are evident in the restaurant’s eastern Mediterranean fare, while California influences display the bond between Sam’s experiences in both cultures. True to each of these cuisines, Sam uses fresh, local ingredients that are chosen daily. In the kitchen, the marrying of the two cuisines produces unique tastes, pairing traditional basics with unexpected details to jolt taste buds and retinas alike.
Built as an immediate stop after a very sharp right off the Pacific Coast highway, the restaurant is small and easily passable. Parking is as near impossible as it gets, so hit the mark in front of the valet who will stash your car (apparently under his coat because there’s nowhere else) for a five dollar fee plus a nice tip. Sam’s wood exterior appears very unlike other beachside bistros: the art deco, colored-glass door boasts the only evidence of the restaurant’s name, and the whole experience smacks of a secret getaway. Walking up to entrance, a slow fervor sets in.
Immediately inside, the entryway empties straight into a modest hosts' stand that borders the only dining area (save for a private room in the back that can house up to twenty). Most likely you will be greeted by either Sam himself, or his right hand man, Jean Michele. As soon as they give word, you will be taken to the best table available in a charming room of no more than 12 tables. This is the sort of intimate situation you don’t often find in the land of “bigger is better.”
The room has a guiltily seductive air, reminiscent of an upscale brothel in the Middle East, complete with velvety leopard pillows and cushions and large swaths of fabric sweeping down from the ceiling in strategic places. A roomy booth built into its own niche draws my eye with small dim Tiffany lamps dangling strings of sparkling beads. The twinkle of the beads ricochets off the metallic walls and highlights a smallish painting of a young girl crawling out of a black hole by artist Edouard Du Maquis. Aptly, the unique semblance is executed in a clean and tasteful manner that allows for a delightfully seedy ambience. The prime seating seems to be the jewel of the whole dining room. Perhaps it is fitting that this table is adjacent to the bar, a rich wooden contraption that boasts many a decent Napa bottle and a modest selection of Martini confections.
Jean Michele shows the way to my nook, pulling the table out so that I may slide along the sinfully pleasant leopard fur with ease. Promptly, a basket of fresh sliced bread is brought with a sauce that at first glance seems to be balsamic vinegar and oil, but upon tasting turns out to be Za’atar, a blend of dried thyme, roasted sesame seed, and olive oil. The surprising taste is potent, but subtle, and a pleasing introduction to the dishes that follow.
As the intoxication of the experience sets in, so does a creeping panic at what to order, and it is somewhat of a relief when Jean Michele recommends the (secret) tasting menu, which offers a sampling of Sam-selected dishes from the restaurant’s seasonal offerings. While not advertised on the menu, the tasting menu is available upon request. Our first course involves a staple of Mediterranean cuisine: a pastry filled with Swiss chard and California walnuts. A quick couple of bites diminishes my share and affords me the opportunity to relish the simple excellence of the Za’atar before we receive our next treat: fresh Sweet Pea Soup garnished with Parmesan and parsley. The consistency is thick, like cream bisque, with velvety traces of the usually grainy split pea broth. The flavor is mild, occasionally altered with sharp parsley, another Mediterranean staple, and tinged with the slight sweetness of asparagus.
Jean Michele is running around the room, tending to each customer’s bidding, making suggestions, joking lightly, and carrying around steaming plates of delicious smells. The next plate he brings me, however, is not steaming; it is a salad: the Lobster Puree Salad featuring lobster mousse with mâche in a mild sesame vinaigrette.
At this point I have caught on that the tasting menu is announced course by course by a slightly breathless Jean Michele, who is genuinely trying to cater to every patron. I also can tell that the intimate getaway thrives on teamwork, as a mixture of at least three different people have come by so far to bring me fresh silverware and to ensure my pleasure. And it is with great pleasure that I tell them the salad is my favorite so far, but not just because of the lobster. The puree’s texture is great—springy but delicate with a mild flavor, but it is the mâche and dressing in conjunction with the puree that really make the dish. The bittersweet vinaigrette is the perfect balance for the ultra sweet meat and the crunch of the mâche greens highlights the tender lobster.
The next plate comes bearing the Homemade Ravioli of the Day: spinach and goat cheese ravioli with cherry tomatoes and basil. The goat cheese, presumably chosen due to its spring-time maturity, adds a pleasant tartness unavailable in the traditional Ricotta variety. The spinach is snuggled next to the cheese for a richness that is not overpowering. The tomato sauce with fresh basil is another classic Mediterranean choice, but the California-fresh cherry tomatoes are able to retain their juiciness even within the sauce, elevating it above the typical marinara.
In the break between the ravioli and my next surprise, I order a glass of the 2000 Farella-Park Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon from a fairly extensive list of reds and whites. It is light and velvety and hard to put down, relieved only when the Swordfish arrives in a light lemon sauce with tomato-treated yellow squash. Once again, the flavor is unexpected and the components are done to perfection. The swordfish bursts with natural juice and mild flavor while the fork tender squash slides in my mouth to reveal the hint of tomato and a crisp finish.
When a server brings me the next set of silverware, I am excited to see that it includes a very sharp knife. Obviously I am having meat, but the surprise element is still alive, as Sam’s serves both beef and lamb. I am delighted to see the signature dish, Rack of Lamb arrive with a splay of Carrots and Asparagus. My dining partner wonders quietly if it is rude to ask for mint jelly, as lamb and mint jelly is his favorite food/condiment duo, and we decide to taste the lamb first. Fortunately, no mint jelly could ever hold a leaf to the dish’s Dijon mustard sauce, which is pungent, sour, and stimulating. The meat is tender enough to not require the sharp knife, but there’s something about that butter-soft cut that keeps me slicing away. The carrots and asparagus are the correct consistency of tender with a slight snap, but of course they cannot compete with the lamb.
Polishing off the entire plate is unavoidable and leaves me feeling a little weary, but Jean Michele assures me the last course will be refreshing and light. He arrives shortly with Poached Strawberries with orange and green peppercorn, accompanied by fresh mint and vanilla ice cream. The ice cream is delicately creamy, like gelato, and the fruit is tinged with cinnamon, another favorite Mediterranean constituent. Much like the previous courses, the fruit and ice cream appear beautiful, but standard, until the taste astounds my tongue and I am smitten.
Throughout the meal, each course has heightened my appreciation for the food, showering me with my traditional favorites and peppering them with new tastes. Ultimately, Sam’s by the Beach has proven an excellent escape from the ordinary, and a place to experience the hidden pleasures of dining.