So I had genuine enthusiasm for Schulson's return to Philadelphia with Sampan, his stylish yet affordable pan-Asian small-plater. For the hot dining zone on 13th Street near Sansom, where Sampan is the first of a trio of new restaurants to be reviewed, this sleek space with color-shifting walls and lively counter dining at the bar and open kitchen is a smart fit, an appealing blend of casual style and sophisticated flavors.
With a menu that grazes across a continent, from Viet banh mi "hoagies" to a hearty noodle bowl of smoky meat ramen to "sashimi" of cubed tuna and avocado topped with cuminy shards of Indian pappadam, there's a long list of finely wrought flavors I'd happily indulge.
But here's the question at Sampan, where Schulson has neither Starr's scripted concept nor the glitz of a casino to back him up: has this 36-year-old talent defined a distinct identity, or is he simply a polished stylist retooling existing trends?
If I vote for the latter, it's not necessarily a major knock. Few cooks have helped evolve and refine fusion cuisine with as much skill and mass appeal as Schulson.
His reimagined "egg roll" is the hollow crisp of a pastry cigarette, still warm from the fryer, piped full of sweet king crab salad tinged with preserved lemon. The "Peking Duck" arrives elegantly potted in a jar like French rillettes, the pulled confit leg meat tucked beneath a mousse of duck stock beside a stack of tamarind pancakes. The only thing missing is the duck-skin crunch.
His "Philly Cheese Steak," mounded over little canapé toasts of Asian bao buns on a plate painted with sriracha streaks, may be the most precious rendition I've ever seen of the city's signature gusto. But they're undeniably delicious, the amazingly tender anise-tinged short rib folded with provolone beneath crispy shallots and saucy dabs of sriracha heat.
I can't help feeling, though, that Schulson has another level in him - perhaps stifled by the desire to keep this venture affordable (all small plates are in the teens), or more likely, strained by this menu's over-expansive urge to do too much, drawing on half a dozen regional influences rather than focusing on one.
There are several touches at Sampan, in both the design and the cooking, that feel too referential. The colored-light walls in the two main dining rooms, even with that melancholy silhouette of barren trees, are so 2001. The Pod DNA, I guess, is hard to shake. (The planned graffiti walls for the 30-seat courtyard in back are more like it. Plus, I hope the al fresco space won't be as ear-numbingly loud as inside.)
If you want to sample a catalog of current food trends, they're all here, from the country ham and smoked bacon accents to the banh mi variations and even the obligatory cauliflower dish (believe it: cauliflower is now the pork belly of the cabbage world).
In some cases they work, as with those salty nuggets of Southern ham tossed in the shrimp fried rice. In others, like that blade of overcooked bacon perched across the hiramasa sashimi, it seemed gratuitous. The clever kimchi pear salad was all this pristine fish needed.
My biggest complaint: The menu feels too broad and unfocused, with more than 40 dishes, including several that still need work. The Madras curry beneath the chicken dumplings was surprisingly bland. The gentle pomelo citrus and lightly-torched suzuki sashimi was overtaken by too much jalapeño heat. The delicate flavor of the lobster sashimi was drowned by its tomato-black bean garnish. The luxurious richness of uni was lost to a watery sauce beneath the sweet shrimp.
I loved the idea of revamping P.F. Chang's chicken lettuce cups with deep-fried sweetbreads, but the awkward shreds of sweet-and-sour slaw overwhelmed the offal. The clam and lamb noodles was also intriguing (which is why I reminded our server, who forgot to bring three dishes, that we still wanted it). But the combo turned out to be a jarring muddle, all briny clam and not enough gamy lamb essence to answer the odd mint jelly.
For every gripe, though, there were more dishes that soared. A pair of Schulson standards - the Thai-glazed chicken wings and those silky edamame dumplings - are still keepers. The "satay" grill also turned out some memorable skewers - succulent tubes of miso-glazed king crab; amazingly tender lamb chops shined in yakitori; and some gingery rolls of butter-soft short rib, marinated in honey and gochujang, with a mince of kimchi on top, that were among the best updates to Korean flavors I've tasted.
Schulson has an unexpected flair for Korean classics. I can still taste those rounds of chewy Korean rice cake tossed with a zingy Bolognese of kimchi-spiced Italian sausage. Chinese flavors were also a strength, from the hash of chewy sausage, green mango, and snappy lily bulbs that accompanied the seared snapper to the delicate boneless morsels of "wok hay" frog legs tossed Cantonese style with the subtle crunch of yellow chives.
When it comes to dessert, however, Sampan takes an unexpected detour toward New World cravings, with fun remakes of a peanut butter cup, caramelized fruit (pineapple financier with coconut ice cream), and most memorably, those mini-cones of soft-serve ice cream. Schulson says they're meant to evoke childhood comforts. But after an adventure meal of pan-Asian sophistication, coming across frozen custards with goofy inspirations such as Fruit Loops, Bubblicious, and Swedish Fish only deepens the enigma of Schulson's culinary identity. Undeniably tasty, sometimes scattered, but still a work in progress.
Next Sunday, Craig LaBan reviews Zavino in Washington Square West. Contact him at 215-854-2682 or firstname.lastname@example.org.