At first glance, Sammy’s Deluxe looks like a Mexican restaurant. And for a while, that’s what it was.

Chef/owner Sam Richman’s Rockland restaurant opened in late 2016, in a space left behind by the recently shuttered Sunfire Grill, a guac-and-nachos joint. Partly for continuity with the previous business, and partly because Richman – one of the first chefs at Brooklyn’s Gran Eléctrica – knows quite a bit about Mexican food, he decided to let inertia pull him along. “I had some jitters going into my first winter, and I didn’t want to try to make a go of it by serving cabbage, so I went with what was easy and just decided to do Mexican all winter long,” he said.

It’s fair to say he doubled down on the concept, keeping the mosaic-tiled café tables and much of the other existing furniture, adding a few spiny cacti along the walls and accessorizing the dining room with vibrant, floral oilcloths. “I’m far from a designer, but I just like what they do to the space. It takes a level of fussiness out of it,” Richman said.

There is something ironic about his desire to move away from fussiness, given that Richman cooked for years at the elegant Jean-Georges in New York, and later stage-ed (cookspeak for apprenticing) in England at The Fat Duck, a modernist, molecular-gastronomy restaurant whose kitchen is, essentially, a laboratory.

Back in Rockland, Richman owns no induction burners and titration tubes. Here, he cooks on an electric Maytag range built for home cooking. “I spent a lot of time at places that are technique-driven, and I had a great time. But now, I’m interested in exactly the opposite of that spectrum,” he explained.

As 2017 progressed, Sammy’s menu evolved. In December, Richman sped up the process by introducing a Hanukkah-inspired menu of classic Central European and Jewish comfort foods. “It’s not the sexiest cuisine in the world, but it’s so satisfying. I kind of like rooting for the underdog,” he said.

I was lucky enough to find many of those dishes on the menu on a recent visit, nearly a month after the holiday ended. Among them, brisket with egg noodles and roasted carrots ($23) – a strictly faithful take on a classic, and good enough to make all the local Bubbes jealous. To prepare it, Richman browns beef, then slathers it with caramelized onions, tomatoes, a little brown sugar and a few bottles of red wine. At a temperature not much hotter than the interior of a Honda Civic sweltering in the August sun (180 F), he braises the meat for 14 hours and plates it, dressed with pan juices, on al dente egg noodle spirals.

It’s difficult to get more traditionally Jewish than matzoh ball soup ($21). Richman’s is clear as a windowpane, bobbing with savory fingerling potatoes, local turnips and carrots, and strewn with strands of finely chopped dill. His baseball-sized matzoh balls are airy without feeling insubstantial, a texture he achieves through a combination of course and fine matzoh meals, carbonated water and stiffly beaten egg whites that he folds in before shaping the spheres and simmering them in rich chicken broth.

If the soup alone had been the entire dish, it would have been enough. But to it, he adds a Common Wealth Farm chicken leg that has been browned and poached gently for hours, until as Richman said, “you can eat it with only a spoon.” You barely need that.

Sammy’s haddock appetizer ($10) is more Eastern European than Jewish, but it makes a superb winter snack nonetheless. Served with thin, crisp toasts made from Richman’s homemade malty brown bread, spicy Dijon mustard and slivers of onion, this dish is really all about the salted, house-smoked haddock and its once-neutral, now smolderingly fragrant safflower oil.

The menu at Sammy’s Deluxe also features several items that refract Richman’s point-of-view through other cultural lenses, like his preserved lemon and rum spritzer ($10), a fruity, savory drink that made me think immediately of salty lemonade drinks I used to order at my favorite Asian noodle shops in New York.

It turns out, that was precisely Richman’s intent, although it took him a while to get there. After turning leftover rinds into salt-cured preserved lemons, he couldn’t find a good use for them on the menu. “I didn’t have a home for them. I always thought of them as an Arabic or Mediterranean ingredient, but I went to a Vietnamese restaurant and tried salty lemonade, and it was so refreshing! I dug a little deeper and it turns out they make it with the same preserved lemons,” he explained. It may sound a little strange, but the combination of salt, ice, acid and mint is a stealthy, refreshing charmer, and as a bonus, it pairs very well with food.

Similarly, Asian cuisine inspired Richman’s Vietnamese iced coffee granita ($7, with an optional Allen’s Coffee Brandy float for $2), made from frozen, brewed Café Du Monde coffee and a crisscross of sweetened condensed milk across the top. It’s a clever idea, a little like an affogato in reverse. But with oversized crystals that produced a chipped-ice texture and not enough dairy to lighten and sweeten the coffee, the dessert felt out of balance.

Proportions were also off in the scallop ceviche ($11), a Maine-inspired twist on a classic South/Central American dish. With local scallops in season right now, Richman knew he wanted to use them. “They’re an exciting ingredient, alive and still quivering when we open them,” he said. “So rather than make a Mexican ceviche with jalapeño and cilantro, we get the same feel, but with the nice ingredients we have on hand.” In particular, watermelon radishes from Fine Line Farm in Searsmont and warming, spicy cherry peppers that Richman jarred himself last summer. But too many raw onions and a heavy hand with the high-acid marinade obliterate the subtle, sweet scallop flavor. I’d love to taste this ceviche again with twice as much seafood and half as much citrus juice.

Another dish I’d like to get my fork into again, but with absolutely no alterations, is Sammy’s delicata and sweet potato salad ($9). Ignore the name. The true star of this dish isn’t roasted, caramelized crescents of squash, smashed chunks of sweet potato, or roughly chopped walnuts. No, the real focus is a high-fat, house-made ricotta that hijacks your attention, no matter how hard you try to concentrate on the rest of the plate. Even a pale ochre moat of dressing – made with raw garlic, cider vinegar and leftover whey from cheesemaking – murmurs with echoes of the cream-enriched ricotta. It’s the perfect encapsulation of Richman’s philosophy: unfussy, layered and ingredient-forward. Most of all, it makes you want to forget about your expectations, and just give in and enjoy.

Andrew Ross has written about food in the United Kingdom and in New York, where he co-founded NYCnosh, a food website. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is an Internet researcher and higher education consultant. Contact him at:

[email protected]

Twitter: @AndrewRossME

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