Seekh Kebab at Samar in Dallas
I have always loved the cooking of Spain, especially the traditional hams, seafood stews, rice dishes such as paella, soups such as gazpacho – and the entire “small-plate” tradition known as tapas, even though in the real Spain real tapas never stop anybody from going out for a real dinner afterward.
I’ve also always loved the transcendent flavors of the Arab-influenced Mediterranean, especially the eastern zone, where the cuisines of Greece, Turkey, Lebanon and Syria roll over each other with plate-bound festivals of lamb, roast potatoes, beans, fresh herbs, a rainbow of spices and more than a little yogurt. And when it comes to Indian cooking, you’ve been able to count me in since my very first bite at the Curry Queen in London in 1976.
Never in my wildest dreams, though, did I think somebody might give me three of my favorite world cuisines in a single restaurant, linking them intellectually and, even more, emotionally, by way of the silk and spice routes that crisscrossed the ancient world. Yes, battles were fought over this stuff in the old days. And one culture did indeed conquer another – especially the time-honored back-and-forth of Greeks and Persians. Greeks will tell you that Alexander the Greek carried his culture everywhere, as far away as India. But increasingly in history – and especially on the small plates at superstar chef Stephan Pyles’ new Samar in the Dallas Arts District – we understand that culture flows in the other direction too.
Someday, maybe someone should try “fusing” these three cuisines – a chef with the ego of Alexander the Great perhaps, except that those guys are all too busy with their TV shows these days. Pyles is still committed to making people happy with actual food – whether at his namesake Stephan Pyles just down the street or at Samar. Such fusion will have to wait, since here he presents not one but three menus: Spanish, Eastern Mediterranean and Indian, weaving the cultures together (at least in typography) only in the final list of desserts.
Best bets from the Spanish menu, based on my three-wave marathon tasting, include the Mejillones in Escabeche (mussels in a lush liquid made with pears, sherry and a bit of cream), the Patatas y Chorizo con Huevo Organico (a delightfully self-translating Castillian redneck breakfast with a fried egg on top and rich, rustic pleasures in every bite), and the eatery’s signature Tres Vasos. This dish goes “molecular” on us, but not so much that real Spanish flavor gets forgotten: a trio of savory parfaits in glasses, one of foie gras brulee with sherried pears and crispy Serrano ham, one of creamy avocado mousse, granular tomato gellee and tempura shrimp, and one (perhaps my favorite) of vanilla-scented mashed potatoes, caramelized apples, pork carnitas and something called “lemon air.” Yum.
Interestingly, most of the Eastern Mediterranean dishes are prepared in Samar’s open kitchen by three Turkish chefs – interesting because Turkey is a kind of survey-course of the entire region and its cultural-culinary history. At this point in the meal, some of the best Indian naan I’ve ever tasted shows up, a stand-in for every glorious pita-like bread between Athens and Mumbai. It’s just in time for dipping in Samar’s well-researched and even-better-executed “HML” – hommus, moutaba and labne. The middle spread, a version of Lebanese baba ganoush, is a wildly smoky-tasting eggplant puree, while the last is a variation on, what, maybe seasoned cream cheese? Hommus is basic hummus, and you’ll be happy they don’t mess with it too much.
Other excellent choices we sampled include the duck confit tagine served (yes, in a miniature cone-topped tagine dish) over tri-color almond couscous, and an amazing Turkish spiced lamb pizza. Almost a souvlaki (in Greek terms), really, this is also every Turkish kebab ever rolled in pita with some form of yogurt between Edirne in the west and Antakya on the border with Syria in the east.
By this point, since you’ve already got your naan (baked crisp in an actual tandoor oven behind what some call the Bread Bar), plus chutneys built around pear, plum, tamarind and mango, small plates from India should follow. My favorites, prepared by an Indian chef, include the Mumbaika Badi Jhinga (tiger prawns served Bombay-style with crispy okra), a nifty lamb curry that supplied my mandatory curry fix, and what I was told was Pyles’ personal choice: Murgh-Khubani Seekh Kebab, a kind of chicken-apricot sausage hand-formed around a skewer then baked in the tandoor and served with a couple fruit-based dipping sauces and roasted cashews. Obviously, Pyles understands the age-old rule: If you really want me to love a dish, put cashews all over it.
Once you get past the beloved Baklava Zone, desserts from the East tend to strike American taste buds as weird. Pyles and his chefs at Samar have addressed that issue completely, serving sweets that are just exotic enough. You need to try the Turkish Coffee Pots de Creme (come on, think extra-lush espresso mousse), plus two big winners from Spain: Candied Ginger-Stuffed Semolina Croquetas with Natilla and Crème Catalana with Candied Kumquats. To see the method in this madness, think of that bizarre gulab jamun trotted out for dessert in Indian restaurants – and then taste Samar’s Chocolate Samosa with Candied Rose Petal Sauce. You’ll know you’ve traveled the entire world, to arrive unexpectedly home.