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Deviled by Details

Extraordinary seafood is a highlight at Sam Miller's, but missteps mar the experience.


Those weren't the only missteps. At lunch, Sam Miller's had run out of three of the regular 11 sandwiches — an oyster po' boy, grilled burger and prime rib — by a little past noon. The waiter attempted to justify the situation by saying those popular items had been gobbled up by a party of 70 in the adjoining banquet room.

Although the meat in the crab cake was fresh and chunky, one bite made it obvious that the sandwich contained little or none of the advertised Cajun rémoulade sauce. When the matter was called to the waiter's attention, he nonchalantly explained that "the chef forgot to make the rémoulade today." The accompanying fries were cold.

As for the bread, a different server acknowledged that it was two days old, negating the advantage of baking on the premises.

One fouled-up meal can be an aberration, but two in a room may be a trend.

All of which is a shame because after 30 years in the same downtown location, Sam Miller's continues to serve some of the best seafood dishes in Richmond, and now in enlarged and beautifully renovated quarters.

Entrees are $22 to $32 at dinner and up to $16 at lunch; appetizers cost $11 to $14 and luncheon sandwiches are $8 to $10. At the raw bar, oysters, clams, crab legs and lobsters are priced by the piece or pound.

The most expensive item, aside from a large lobster from the tank, is a broiled seafood combo, which consists of fresh fish — mahi-mahi or rockfish, for example — plus crab-stuffed shrimp, scallops and half a Maine lobster, served on a large platter with rice and green beans.

Chef Rhian Pryor, who has been in the kitchen off and on for 10 years, knows when to pull the different fish from the broiler, as all were cooked to produce maximum flavor.

A specialty called Rustica can feature any of a small number of fish, pan-seared and served with spinach and wild mushroom grits. The menu says the fish are local, but when our waiter recited the evening's choices — salmon, tilapia, mahi-mahi, or rockfish — we noted that none of them was local. The server owned up that "they never are." The tilapia was nonetheless quite good, marred only by too much liquid from the grits.

Sam Miller's reputation is tied to crab, and deservedly so. The dining room serves a pair of crab cakes with a purée of roasted red pepper and corn with scallion crŠme fraŒche and grainy mustard. The bar offers a crab-cake platter with Old Bay fries and coleslaw, and there are three versions of a crab-cake sandwich at lunch. In addition to the traditional method, Maryland style is golden brown, accompanied by green peppers, onions and cheddar, and a blackened wrap consists of crab imperial with spinach, diced tomatoes and red onions. Each was delicious, with just enough dressing to hold the chunks of meat together.

Crab soup and a crab dip are served at both lunch and dinner. The former, a bit bland, is full of meaty chunks swimming in a cream sauce. An innovative appetizer is Oysters Five Ways, the best of which is a cornmeal-crusted pancake. A noteworthy dessert is chocolate molten cake with espresso cream.

Sam Miller, by the way, was a Polish immigrant who ran a grocery store and cafe across the street in the early 20th century. The restaurant's owner, Tom Leppert, borrowed the name after seeing it on the building at the corner.

The renovation two years ago, designed by Helen Hayes, coincided with the expansion of Sam Miller's into space previously occupied by the Bus Stop eatery.

The makeover, which qualified the building for a spot on the National Register of Historic Places, makes Sam Miller's one of the loveliest places in town for fine dining. Now, if the kitchen can only remember to make the rémoulade and discard the bread each day. S

Sam Miller's ($$$$)
1201 E. Cary St.
Open daily: lunch, 11 a.m.-5 p.m.; dinner, 5-10 p.m. (9 p.m. on Sunday);Sunday brunch, 10:30 a.m.-3 p.m.

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