The highest compliment you can give chef Sam Richman of Sammy’s Deluxe in Rockland is that his food tastes as good as your grandma’s.
“That’s the best thing anyone could say about what I make,” said Richman. “I want it to hit that same kind of spot. That would be the best.”
He may have honed his technique in high-end restaurants, but Richman doesn’t place a high priority on emulating the trappings (or price point) of fancy dining establishments.
Richman, 36, is more concerned about making the food at Sammy’s Deluxe as local and as accessible as possible — while not losing the edge he gained while working in restaurants such as Jean Georges in New York and The Fat Duck in England, both of which have earned three Michelin Stars.
The food at Sammy’s Deluxe is a simple, unfussy, highly pleasurable blend of New England and Maine cuisine, comfort food classics and a few European influences.
“It’s Maine food, comfort food, super simple, classic dishes done really, really well,” said Richman. “There’s amazing raw material to draw off of here. Why complicate it?”
Richman, a native of Durham, New Hampshire, cooked in New York and the U.K. for more than a decade, including opening the Mexican restaurant Gran Electrica in Brooklyn, New York. In 2013, he came to midcoast Maine, working as a private chef and then cooking for two years at the now-defunct Salt Water Farm at Union Hall Restaurant in Rockport (Salt Water Farm still operates a cooking school in Lincolnville).
Before opening Sammy’s Deluxe in June, Richman and some fellow local restaurant veterans offered a series of pop-up Mexican dinners under the name Salty Soup Kitchen, held at Oyster River Winegrowers in Warren.
Mexican cuisine has yet to make an appearance on the Sammy’s Deluxe menu, but Richman hasn’t ruled out a special taco night. And he already sources hominy, aka Nixtamal, that he uses in many stews and other dishes, from Tortilleria Pachanga in Portland.
When Richman heard the Sunfire Grill would be closing this year after 14 years in business, he snapped up its former space at 488 Main St. — the north end of downtown Rockland’s main drag, just a few hundred feet from the ferry terminal — and in mid-June quietly opened the doors to Sammy’s Deluxe.
While there are some similar aesthetics between the food Richman cooked at Salt Water Farm and what he’s now serving at his own restaurant, there’s a distinctive personal touch in each of the dishes on the menu. Richman moved to Maine to get away from the rat race of New York, but he fell in love with both the ingredients and the community.
“I dream about belonging to a food culture. Wherever I travel, I’m always jealous of places where people sing the same songs and belong to a distinctive culture, and eat the same food, and they cook them with pride, and argue about who makes the best what,” said Richman. “You don’t really find that much at all in America, except in some really regional cuisines — which New England happens to have.”
To that end, the nightly menu at Sammy’s Deluxe regularly features a revolving assortment of Maine classics and comfort food treats — Steamers; chilled lobster; mac and cheese; pot roast-style roast pork; a big wedge salad with homemade buttermilk ranch dressing; a bowl of shuck-your-own fresh peas, when in season; blueberry crisp; New England Spiced Pudding, which you might know as Indian pudding; ice cream sandwiches and a wicked good — and wicked sloppy — cheeseburger.
Even dishes usually thought of as junk food — a sloppy joe, for example, or a corn dog — have made appearances on the menu, albeit made with great ingredients and with a chef’s technique. For Richman, it’s not about the pretense; it’s about how good it tastes.
“I’m not trying to gussy anything up. I’m not trying to do a fancy version of anything,” said Richman. “It’s easier to hide behind a gussied up dish. It’s harder to put out something kind of austere, and say, ‘Believe me, this is really delicious’
“Our spiced pudding looks like a slop of brown sludge with some cream around it, but it’s really the most delicious, ugly food you’ve ever eaten,” he said.
It’s not just well-known classic New England dishes. Richman manages to sneak in a few less obvious items on the menu, such as roast skate with broccoli and garlic scapes in the spring, or roast cod with hominy and potato in a pepper and crab broth in the fall and winter. Richman smokes haddock and ribs in his outdoor smoker. There also are a few dishes inspired by both Scandinavia and Central Europe, from mackerel (fished right out of Rockland Harbor) both smoked and pickled, to Polish-style stuffed cabbage.
“I think there are some similarities to be found between Central Europe and Scandinavia and Maine, at least in terms of ingredient base and climate and heartiness,” said Richman.
The interior of Sammy’s is simple and unpretentious; a big bar, a few houseplants, an upright piano in the corner. Food is served on vintage plates. Just as Richman doesn’t want his menu to scream “fancy restaurant,” so he doesn’t want the look of it to do that, either.
“I think that really can deter people from what they otherwise would probably love to try,” said Richman.
After a brisk first summer tourist season, Richman is settling into what he hopes will be a winter and spring that will please his most important customer: the locals.
“That’s my goal. I want to make sure this is a place locals want to return to,” he said.
Sammy’s Deluxe, located on Main Street in Rockland, is open for dinner from 5 to 9 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays.