ROCKLAND — Sammy’s Deluxe in downtown Rockland is not your usual restaurant with your standard cuisine.

Cured mackerel and radish toast at Sammy’s Deluxe in Rockland. Photo courtesy of Sam Richman

Instead, customers will find incredible unique and local fare like eel jalapeno poppers, corned beef tongue au jus and dishes made from smelt and mackerel.

Owner/Operator Sam Richman acknowledged some people may think his menu is weird. “For better or worse, it’s not for everybody,” Richman said. “They see a lot of stuff they don’t recognize.”

That has not stopped the eatery from seeing success since it opened in 2016.

Richman and his restaurant have been featured in local magazines and television shows. Richman does not keep track of those features, though. “The most important thing is there are customers,” he said.

Richman said he is fortunate to have a very strong team supporting him while he runs the restaurant and creates the dishes for the menu.

Creating dishes

There is no single process for deciding what will be added to the menu next. “Nine times out of ten it’s ingredient driven,” Richman said. He considers what ingredients are exciting at the moment, and what he can do with them.

“We use a lot of mushrooms, so there are always interesting mushroom dishes on the menu,” Richman commented.

Preserved matsutake pelmeni at Sammy’s Deluxe in Rockland. Photo courtesy of Sam Richman

The preserved matsutake pelmeni is one such dish currently being served.

Richman said he and his staff have become skilled at preserving mushrooms. For this dish, he preserved matsutake mushrooms like sauerkraut. Then Richman decided he wanted to make pasta, so he made the preserved mushrooms into a pasta dish called pelmeni.

Richman described pelmeni as tiny ravioli the size of a tortellini.

“It took a lot of tinkering,” he said. “For that one, the ingredient gave the inspiration.”

Another factor Richman said he takes into consideration is what he wants to eat. “Sometimes I want to eat chicken tenders, and sometimes we make chicken tenders.”

Fried smelt at Sammy’s Deluxe in Rockland. Photo courtesy of Sam Richman

When local smelts are available, though, Richman said there is nothing more exciting to eat. “Why wouldn’t you serve those?”

He also considers his pride in Midcoast Maine when creating dishes. “I came here because I like the people; I like the culture,” Richman said. “I pay a lot of attention to what is around when.”

One result of such attention was what Richman called “cosmos the hard way.” For a limited time, Sammy’s Deluxe featured a cosmopolitan cocktail, that classic drink made with vodka, triple sec and cranberry juice, with house-made cranberry juice.

Richman found local cranberries, and the restaurant staff was discussing how to use them. Someone suggested making cosmos, so they started experimenting with making cranberry juice.

This process turned out to be more challenging than expected.  “Turns out juicing cranberries is really, really hard,” Richman commented. The first try yielded a very low outcome, so the crew went on YouTube and figure the process out. It was, he said, a lot of trial and error.

Richman said the result was much different than bottled cranberry juice. “Everyone understands that with regular fruit, but not cranberries,” he said. “Even the color of it is different. Like a tomato juice.”

“We kind of went nuts,” Richman admitted. “It was a lot of work for one stupid cocktail.”

So why would they bother with so much effort for one drink? Because they were excited about the cranberries. “We wanted to do it justice,” Richman said.

Sammy’s start

Smelt under a fur coat at Sammy’s Deluxe in Rockland. Photo courtesy of Sam Richman

Richman’s cooking career began when he started washing dishes in high school. From there, he said, he started cooking for fun and realized he liked it.

In college Richman worked in restaurants, and then started picking his places of employment a little more carefully so he could continue to learn.

Richman got a lot of on-the-job training working in those kitchens. “Culinary school is certainly one way to do it,” he said, “but it’s not the only way. If you pay attention and have an actual desire… you can get as good an education as at a culinary school.”

In 2016, Sammy’s Deluxe was a Mexican restaurant, Sunfire Grille. Richman was a chef at the Saltwater Farm in Rockport, but he was not the owner. He was heavily invested personally in that restaurant, and Richman said when it closed “it felt like the rug was getting pulled out from under me.”

This was not the first time this happened, either. “I didn’t want to have the instability of putting all the effort into it,” he said.

So even though he did not have a lot of capital, Richman began looking at places. “At that point my biggest expenditure was a junky car. It was pretty terrifying,” he commented.

While he was searching from Belfast to Waldoboro looking for a place, he was hosting a Mexican food event at Oyster River Winery once a week. The owners of Sunfire Grille, who were looking to sell their entire restaurant as a turn-key business, got in touch with him through the winery.

“I had no interest in opening a Mexican restaurant, but it’s how I learned about the space,” Richman said. “I looked at it and it sort of clicked.”

“I signed the lease, and 13 days later we opened,” he said.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Having fun in the Sammy’s Deluxe kitchen, Rockland. Photo courtesy of Sam Richman