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EPICURE: Review of Spamps, a Family Affair in Conshohocken

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All in the Family
Spamps aims to please. But can it satisfy everyone?

The Scene: With its weathered brick façade, bright lemon-yellow door, black window awnings and red, white and blue flag, Spamps’ exterior looks like it belongs on one of those Doors of Ireland posters. And aside from the Broadway-Deco logo on either side of the front door, there’s little evidence that something hip might be happening inside. It’s a clever exterior disguise for an interior that’s more city chic than shabby chic.

Concrete flooring, bare walls and an exposed ceiling bring an urban edge to the bar area, which is warmed by a 40-seat copper bar, coordinating copper and wood high-tops and fashionable light fixtures. The lone sushi bar—billed as one of Spamps’ main selling points—illuminating in the back corner feels like an afterthought rather than a focal point. A more prime location would’ve added a splash of culinary theatrics.

The main dining room occupies the space formerly used by the owners of Viggiano’s—minus the Alice in Wonderland-like carriage table. (The curvaceous corner booth is still there.) Voyeurs will appreciate the view of the bar, the two spaces delineated by an attractive wrought iron railing. Bold butter-colored walls, exposed brick and a fireplace lend a cozy touch, but there’s no doubt this is the formal dining room.

The Experience: Spamps owner Mike Spampinato hails from Plymouth Meeting Country Club, where he served as manager for 18 years. Joining him is his daughter Marcie, who has a hotel/restaurant management degree from Penn State. Spampinato’s wife, Wendy, is the brains behind the décor, and daughters number one and number two are also involved: Carie works on-site, and Joanie designed the website.

Spamps is very much a family affair, and there’s no shortage of pride. We’d barely made it through the door when a suited gentleman greeted us. It was Mike Spampinato, and he escorted us to the bar and inquired what we thought of his new baby. Seconds later, he introduced his other baby Marcie, Spamps’ general manager. His sense of humor and hospitality shining through, Spampinato invited me behind the bar to check out his vodka selection. Turns out he has an affinity for martinis as well.

Things were pretty quiet in the main dining room. Only three tables were occupied at the time, yet it took more than a few minutes for someone to acknowledge our presence. Service remained slow-paced throughout the meal, but our waiter was well mannered and carried over the aim-to-please attitude we’d experienced since arriving.

The Food: Spamps’ menu offers something for all palates. Steak, seafood and sushi dominate the menu, with entrées ranging from $17 for herb roasted chicken to $47 for a broiled 10-ounce lobster tail with jumbo lump crab. While the meal was enjoyable and well above average, there was a lack of nuance in the work of executive chef Marcus Williams and second-in-command Shawn Coleman. Everything was nicely prepared with quality ingredients and the best of intentions. But ultimately, the food was more plain Jane than Marilyn Monroe.

The nondescript bread came with a side of roasted garlic purée. Prepared with basil, white pepper and parsley, it needed a dash of salt to draw out the flavor, the seasonings too subtle—a recurring theme throughout the meal.

Later revealed as an impromptu creation, the coral-colored salmon bisque was made with a light tomato-cream broth, sparse shreds of grilled salmon filet and diced tomatoes. It was quite good.

Our sushi appetizers also hit the mark in freshness, taste and ingenuity. The Spamps roll is a sizable combination of smoky black-pepper-crusted seared tuna, asparagus and king crab meat. Its only flaw was the king crab, which was minced and mixed with bland mayo-like substance. By contrast, the sweet, creamy horseradish sauce drizzled on the plate had a welcome bite.

The Marcie—spicy salmon wrapped with broiled eel and avocado, topped with tobiko and eel sauce—was also enormous. The salmon melted on contact, a nice juxtaposition to the more fibrous, tangy-sweet eel.

Sadly, a plate of salt and pepper calamari was at odds with itself. The antithesis of rubbery versions often tasted elsewhere, these delicate rings were succulent beyond compare, but fell flat under the “light dusting of seasoned bread crumbs,” which were wet and mealy.

The spinach salad, served slightly wilted with meek-tasting warm bacon vinaigrette was another near miss, as was the wedge salad, a disappointing pile of iceberg lettuce devoid of the promised red onions and tomato.

The real star of the meal was a hefty, medium-rare gem of a veal chop—moist, toothsome and satisfying with a light charred flavor. Two thumbs up for the baked potato. Light, fluffy with a crisp skin, it was a formidable side dish for the meaty chop.

Everyone claims their crab cake is the best, and Spamps is no exception. The menu practically shouts, “No filler, they are the best!” And Coleman’s recipe shouldn’t be dismissed, its chunks of sweet jumbo lump loosely molded into a generous patty. But, alas, almost every bite was laden with larger chunks of red and green bell pepper. Perhaps it depends on your definition of filler (bread crumbs vs. chopped pepper), the menu description did seem a bit deceiving. A side of string beans turned out to be crisper than expected, but as with almost everything we tried, they lacked any truly distinct seasoning.

We never made it to dessert. But if you’ve got a sweet tooth, there’s plenty to choose from. Among the homey (and hearty) selection—deep-fried cheesecake, tiramisu, pineapple upside down cake, carrot cake and cappuccino mousse—only the tiramisu is made in-house.

Spamps’ unassuming wine list (if you take out the Opus and the Dom) favors domestic vintners with a heavy emphasis on California. There are a few pleasant selections from France, Italy and South America, along with premium champagnes, sake and wines by the glass ($7-$9). Bottle prices at Spamps range from $15-$240.

The Skinny: The relaxed, ‘make yourself at home’ mind-set of Spamps and its staff is attractive. From what we took in during our visit, guests in the dining room and the bar area were genuinely enjoying themselves. There was a discernible aura of gratitude in the room—a sense that everyone there agreed that Spamps offers a sorely needed change of pace in Conshohocken.

The question management needs to resolve, is exactly what kind of audience they want to attract. The array of concepts—burgers, Asian chicken wings, crab and shrimp quesadillas, satays and salads at the bar; steak, seafood and kids’ fare in the dining room; along with the sushi option—is ambitious. But attempting to appeal to families, weekend revelers and a fashionable, food-savvy crowd all at once is far from a sure thing.

Plans for Penn State and Eagles brunches are a great idea, but may take away the fine dining feel management is striving for. And at some point, trying to please everyone may become more of a detriment than a strong suit.

It’s too early to tell how this business plan will play out. But if the continuous stream of bar patrons and the amount of square footage devoted to the sushi and cocktail bars is any indication, Mike Spampinato already has a pretty good idea of what he expects will be Spamps’ bread and butter.


DETAILS:
Location: 16 E. 1st Ave., Conshohocken; (610) 825-4155; spampsrestaurant.com
Cuisine: Steakhouse-sushi fusion
Entrée prices: $17-$47
Attire: Business casual to suburban chic.
Atmosphere: Urban edge in the bar/sushi area; upscale, modern bistro flair in the main dining room. Casual atmosphere; diverse crowd.
Hours: Mon.-Fri., 11-2 a.m.; lunch 11 a.m.-5 p.m., dinner 5-10 p.m.
Extra: Roving Frank Sinatra crooner Jean Paul on Saturday nights; private 100-seat banquet room with antique marble bar; game-day brunches.

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