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Choice matters at Café Sam, owner says

| Sunday, Oct. 10, 2004

Cafe Sam's menu parallels the restaurant's history: Both are long, rich and colorful.

The restaurant's homey and stately building, which straddles the border between Shadyside and Bloomfield, was erected as a private residence in 1911. However, long before its renovation and conversion to a restaurant in 1987, the building housed a brothel, says owner Andy Zins.

Today, a cozy and vintage environment -- including an antique mannequin seated at the bar -- greets patrons who come to enjoy upscale contemporary American food created by executive chef Dennis Smulick, 27, and his staff of about 15.

"I think there are happy spirits in the building," says co-manager Mary Turyan of Shadyside. "We're a very busy little place. It feels intimate, yet there's a lot going on."

Cafe Sam's menu features more than three dozen hot entrees, ranging from pasta to seafood and red meat to poultry, served in a cheery dining room dotted with pink cushion seats and pink cloth napkins.

Service is offered in two dining rooms -- upstairs and downstairs -- and on an outdoor patio. The restauraunt seats 130.

Food choices and styles ranging from a fancy steak to casual hamburger have secured a steady and diverse clientele for Cafe Sam during its 17 years, Zins says. He says the restaurant can comfortably accommodate a variety of diners, from a couple celebrating their 25th wedding anniversary to jeans-clad young adults having a meal before or after a movie.

"One of the beautiful parts of this restaurant is that it's really all about choices," says Zins, of Squirrel Hill. "That's why we've stayed here so long."

Among Smulick's best-selling specialties are pecan trout, and a blackened New York Strip steak with a Jack Daniels whiskey butter sauce. Every month, the kitchen offers a new four-course meal special, which is quite popular with customers, Turyan says.

Smulick, a 1998 graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., also prepares desserts ranging from simple peach pie to creme brulee, which the Bloomfield resident shared with Cooking Class.

While customers have their favorite dishes, Cafe Sam does not claim any specialty or signature dish because it would not be fair to the rest of the menu, Turyan says.

"There are so many choices, and they're all good," she says. "People utilize it for different things. It can be a fancy restaurant, or a nice, local neighborhood restaurant, as we've always been."

When preparing this classic French dessert, chefs use a small blowtorch to caramelize the sugar on top just before serving. If you don't have a blowtorch, place the bowls under a hot oven broiler. Leave the door open, checking every 10 seconds. Create a coffee creme brulee by adding 2 tablespoons ground coffee (unbrewed) in the first step of the recipe, with the heavy cream.

Cafe Sam's Classic Creme Brulee

  • 2 1/2 cups heavy cream
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1/2 cup granulated sugar, divided, plus extra for topping
  • 1 large egg
  • 9 large egg yolks
  • Strawberries, blueberries and raspberries, for garnish (optional)

Heat the oven to 325 degrees.

Pour the heavy cream into a medium saucepan. Place on a heated stovetop over high heat. Add the vanilla and 1/4 cup granulated sugar. Stir well, preferably with a wooden spoon. Heat until the mixture reaches a boil, and stir periodically. Make sure nothing is sticking to the bottom of the saucepan.

Meanwhile, prepare the eggs. Place the whole egg and yolks in a medium mixing bowl and whisk until slightly beaten. Gradually whisk in the remaining 1/4 cup sugar. Do this just before you add the heavy cream mixture, otherwise the eggs might become dehydrated. To keep the bowl in place as you whisk, wrap a wet kitchen towel around the bottom of it.

As the heavy cream mixture reaches a boil, remove it from the stovetop, and turn the heat down to medium. Slowly and gently whisk the cream into the egg and sugar mixture, and pour it back into the saucepan. Return to the stove and heat for about 1 minute, stirring gently, until the blend is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. Strain through a fine sieve to remove any solids.

Divide the mixture among 6 dessert dishes, about 4 ounces each. Put the dishes in a large baking pan, and fill the pan about halfway with hot water -- this keeps the dessert moist. Bake for about 45 minutes, or until firm.

If the custards move when tilted, place the pan back into in the oven and check for doneness about every 4 minutes. Let cool, then refrigerate overnight.

When ready to serve, coat the top of each dessert evenly with granulated sugar; shake off the excess. Heat the top with a small blowtorch until it is light brown and crisp. Or, place under a broiler.

Serve with sliced strawberries, blueberries and raspberries, if desired.

Makes 6 servings. Additional Information:


Cafe Sam, 5242 Baum Blvd., Shadyside, is open from 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Mondays and Tuesdays; 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays; 11:30 a.m. to midnight Fridays; 5 p.m. to midnight Saturdays; and 5 to 10 p.m. Sundays. Reservations are suggested, and Cafe Sam is available for private parties. Details: (412) 621-2000.

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