With all the recent action in northeast Minneapolis -- the opening of Amici Pizza, the continued prosperity of the Northeast Social Club, the constant comforting innovation of the Modern Cafe, the insurgent bravado of El Taco Riendo, the skillfully authentic Chimborazo, the locavore-meets-Thai charm of Sen Yai Sen Lek -- it's no surprise that a middle-aged trooper such as the Sample Room might feel a little neglected.
Hence the Sample Room's recent reboot, with plenty of new items and separate lunch and dinner menus. (There's lots of overlap between the menus, but lunch does have a wider selection of sandwiches and a two-out-of-three soup/salad/sandwich combo.)
There's much to like about the small, hearty plates of the Sample Room (both in their classic and reinvented forms), so let's dispense with the bad and savor the happy details. The $14 charcuterie plate, one of the cornerstones of the restaurant's reinvention, would better be described as a charcuterie heap or charcuterie pile. Pieces of sometimes-too-chewy meat product and apricot mostarda were stacked more or less on top of each other.
Charcuterie aside, a broad sampling of menu offerings turned up winner after winner. Manila clams with Grain Belt beer and garlic ($6.25) seemed like a gamble, but they paid off with a jackpot of sweet, subtle flavor and tender texture. Good shellfish can be hard to find in this state, but the Sample Room nails it twice in one menu -- seared diver scallops with nettle puree ($8) were also excellent, the scallops cooked properly and the puree delicious enough to mop up with bread. The menu now lists seared sea scallops with dandelion coulis, but it seems likely to be equally good.
Similarly, a roasted fresh veggie torte ($6) was a deftly crafted delight, with a tasty buttery crust and a skillful compromise between the vegetal snap of fresh produce and the soothing texture and flavor provided by a good roast. Red pepper sour cream tied the package together with a decorative bow.
There's not really much to say about the menu's fresh fettuccine with wild mushrooms and asparagus ($9) other than "huzzah!" The pasta was delicate and toothsome, the mushrooms soulful and earthy, the asparagus correctly cooked.
Dessert was no less enjoyable. A chocolate flan cake ($6) was exceedingly moist, pleasingly sticky and not too sweet, both indulgent and restrained. And a strawberry shortcake ($4) used rich real whipped cream and, in a clever twist, balsamic vinegar to lend an exciting hit of tangy flavor.
Since it opened in 2002, the Sample Room has gone from edgy and young to comfortable and familiar -- ambiguous traits that can be the key to long-term prosperity or the precursor to a slide into extinction. Happily, the comfort offered up at this moodily chic eatery doesn't seem to be a sign of dulled edge. This reinvention shows ambition and skill, not complacency and compromise.
On Sunday, catch the Actors Theater of Minnesota presentation of "The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)" at 6 p.m. on the rooftop garden at Brit's Pub in Minneapolis. It features all 37 plays in 97 minutes by three guys in tights -- plus food and drink specials (including the always-tasty Vincent burger).
The Heavy Table team writes about food and drink in the Upper Midwest five days a week at www.heavytable.com.