Surely this is one of the most outlandish names for a restaurant anywhere. When we first heard it, we couldn’t believe our ears. First of all, Sam isn’t even a Greek name. But “informed sources” promised superlative food and a pleasant atmosphere so off we trotted, happy to be heading for the beguiling district between Keramikos and Metaxourgio, where no one had any reason to venture not even a decade ago.
The first thing that struck us that dark night in mid-December were the small festive lights entwined around the restaurant’s windows, but immediately afterwards we found ourselves smiling at the graphics. Inside and out, the signs, the lettering, the images – of a girl with braids sitting on a swing, arms behind her back, unfussy, line drawings in black and white – charmed us. The clock on one wall with the letters LOVE at the cardinal points added one perfect touch. Another was the clunky red telephone on the counter that used to work with a two-drachma coin.
Our friend had chosen a table, one of a mere ten in the cozy L-shaped room, and we sat back, already feeling relaxed and at home.
The waitress, Maria, greeted us; pretty and blonde, she was wearing a very unwaitressy denim shirt, gray tights and hoop earrings.
“So tell us,” we asked as she handed us the menus, “what’s the story behind this name?”
It must be something Maria gets asked several times a day but she told us without a hint of boredom. “Well, one of the owners had a Sam in his life, she was his girlfriend. They broke up, separated for a while, and then he decided he wanted her back. But it was too late. She’d taken up with the wrong boy. Now they’re both married and have kids but in the meantime he started writing a book about their affair. And since it looks as though he may never finish and will probably never publish it, he’s given the name of the story to this place instead,” she explained.
The two owners are in the food business – they also own a large ouzeri in Aigaleo, a western suburb in Athens – but that’s all we could get out of Maria about this elusive ex-boyfriend of Sam. Instead, with light piano music playing in the background, we spent quite a long time studying the menu, separated into Sam’s Preliminary, Sam’s Dishes and Sam’s Desserts, printed on thick gray-green cardboard. There are nine appetizers, and ten entrees, plus two or three specials and the choice was not simple as they all sounded so interesting. Mostly Greek, a few Italian (ragu, tagliatelle, risotto), with some familiar-sounding names presented in unusual combinations, or even new flavors we’d never tasted, like roasted asparagus with lamb prosciutto and poached egg, green fava paste with smoked pancetta from Corfu or roasted mushrooms with chimichurri sauce.
“I want the food I make to bring warmth, happiness and a family atmosphere.”
Finally, the three of us overordered: green salad with warm goat cheese and crispy bacon in truffle oil vinaigrette; those piquant mushrooms; grilled salmon with a spice crust; slow simmered beef cheeks in gravy with mustard and creamy mashed potatoes; and slow roasted pork neck with black trumpet mushrooms, smoked bacon and French potatoes. Maria brought us the very drinkable house red wine from Nemea, and for a while we stopped talking, tasting from each other’s plates, savoring every mouthful, occasionally sighing with pleasure.
We felt spoiled and cossetted. Not only was every dish cooked to perfection, it was also beautifully assembled and presented on lovely plates.
As it was a quiet evening, every now and then the chef would appear, wearing a red jacket and a black beret. We pulled him over and he told us his story.
Though he’s only 30 years old, Tasos has been cooking since he was 15. “I wanted to do something creative and it fit. I’ve worked in several places – in Piraeus, at Polly Maggoo – and I’ve developed my own style, since I think food should be beautiful to look at as well as to eat,” he said. “Most of all I want the food I make to bring warmth, happiness and a family atmosphere, the kind you might find at Sunday lunch at home. Everything I do is with my heart.”
We were touched by his enthusiasm and his sincerity (as well as his fresh, handsome face). And it’s true – he and Maria have created a welcoming, family atmosphere. Even though it was our first time (for two of us, anyway), we felt as though we were old timers.
And even though we didn’t have room for it, we ordered dessert, profiteroles and an ethereal mille-feuille with caramelized puff pastry and homemade butter caramel, which had us swooning in ecstasy.
Oh dear, Sam aka Tasos made us feel like stuffed geese, and we waddled out resolving not to eat again for at least 24 hours.
But written in chalk on a small blackboard opposite the door, a quote by Virginia Woolf put a perfect coda on our evening: “One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.”
Perhaps Sam would have stuck around if she had dined as well as we did.