The restaurant biz runs in the family across any number of local surnames, but the best possible passing of the torch from one generation to the next involves not just continuity but an element of change that keeps menus exciting and atmospheres vibrant.
Such is the outcome at T.J. Samuel's, a relatively new spot in Eureka that took over the space formerly occupied by the short-lived but quite enjoyable Cottonwood. The name "Samuel" might not ring any bells when it comes to local restaurant dynasties, but that's simply because Samuel is the first name of one of the co-owner's sons; the "J" comes from other son, Jack, and the "T" signifies the co-owner himself, one Tim Karagiannis.
All the culiniscenti around these parts know that the Karagiannises are the brains and brawn behind the Spiro's empire (which now includes the Tenderloin Room); another member of the elder generation runs Kari's Surf and Sirloin on Manchester Road. For this new production, young Tim teamed up with Bob Madden, a nonfamily Spiro's alumnus who most recently served as manager of Remy's Kitchen and Wine Bar.
Samuel's takes many of the best qualities from its owners' training grounds and then takes a shot at elevating them to a higher plane. For his part, Karagiannis stays true to his Greek roots in a number of menu items; Madden borrows Remy's fine tradition of a short, well-planned, rotating wine list that offers the possibility of tasting small portions of similar wines in "flights."
In addition, Karagiannis has put several tableside-finished items on his menu, reprising an element of extra effort in service that developed so many longtime fans for Spiro's. On that note, we'll start at the end of one of our visits so that we may rave about the virtues of Samuel's bananas Foster, a spectacular flambée that had the entire dining room cheering.
In a light skillet on a flaming Sterno burner, the server begins by melting butter and dropping in multiple cubes of brown sugar. Then an orange is peeled and the rind dropped into the slowly bubbling syrup, to which is added, in stages, light and dark rum, crème de banana and coconut liqueur, with the alcohol burned off in a flaming torch at each step. Then the juice of the orange is squeezed in and the bananas are sautéed briefly in the intense tropical nectar, with powdered cinnamon sprinkled into the last vestiges of flame to produce magical sparkles. The final result is placed in a tureen of vanilla ice cream and topped off with the remains of the sticky, concentrated liquid.
Geez, it's good.
And that truly grand finale was actually our second spectacle of that particular visit, which had begun with an appetizer of flaming beer-battered kasseri, a close cousin to the saganaki that's a staple at Greek restaurants. The version here was semimelted, still retaining a touch of firmness and pungently flavored, with just the hint of a salty overtone.
Another Greek variant among the appetizers was the keftedes (meatballs), in this case made of ground bison and flavored with a hot-pepper-fired marinara sauce decorated with bits of carrot, scallion and red bell pepper. These were drier than beef-based meatballs because of the nature of bison but also fuller-flavored and able to stand up to the spicy sauce. But our favorite among the starters was the "duck drummies" -- four duck legs, very moist and firm on the inside under a crisp skin, flavored with a delicate citrus coating and a base of shredded ginger.
Soup or salad comes with the meal; if you choose it, the Greek salad will be tossed tableside, although when my dining partner and I ordered it jointly, the version we received was somewhat overdressed. The results were better when only one of us ordered it on a subsequent visit. If the French onion soup is offered and you're one of the old fans of the Famous-Barr "Les Halles" version, be sure to try Samuel's rendition, which is rich with onions and topped with bubbling white cheese.
Entrees include eight grilled items, four chicken dishes, three pastas and four seafoods, with two or three nightly specials augmenting the printed list. Those we tried ranged from very good -- a dill-and-cornmeal-encrusted trout and a shrimp-stuffed beef fillet -- to outstanding. Samuel's has the best prime rib I've found in a long time -- truly fork-tender and utterly juicy but not to the point where it becomes stewy. And the salmon Dijon got the most out of the hot-mustard coating by spreading it across a thick cross-cut, allowing the mild fish flavor to meld with the spiciness rather than being overcome by it. Most entrees came with the "Samuel's mashed potatoes," a coarse mashing dotted with chopped garden vegetables, and the potatoes themselves were fine, especially with dishes that gave off jus or gravy. One of my few complaints, however, came in regard to the side vegetable, an almost-afterthought of green beans and squash that added a lone note of the mundane to an otherwise thoughtful and adventurous meal.
In addition to the bananas, we tried the crème brûlée, a little thick on the hard-carmelized top but certainly within reasonable tolerances, and deep and custardy underneath, served in the same crock that had brought the ice cream for the bananas.
Even before I had time to write this and make an additional suggestion, Karagiannis and Madden addressed it all by themselves. With entrees generally in the $15-plus range and giant portions, Samuel's seemed to have placed itself out of the reach of folks just looking for a quick meal after the commute home to the burgeoning bedroom communities springing up nearby. Smart businessfolks that they are, they introduced a lighter, cheaper ($11-$13) "bistro" menu this past weekend as a supplement to rather than a replacement for their existing fare.
And the space itself is a real charmer, a relic of small-town Main Street U.S.A., with silver-painted molded-tin ceilings, dim lighting and dark-green walls. A roaring brazier-contained fire welcomes visitors outside on the patio, which is probably a fine place for a meal in the warmer months.
But even in the cold (welcomed by the proprietors with a "Let It Snow" banner outside), T.J. Samuel's is warm and friendly, combining the traditions of its owners with a new generation of innovation.
T.J. SAMUEL'S, 106 S. Main, Eureka, 636-938-1177. Dinner: Mon.-Thu. 4:30-10 p.m.; 4:30-11 p.m. Fri.-Sat.; lunch hours starting in spring. Entrees: $13.95-$21.95.