Duck. Duck. Pork. That’s what you’ll find under the “meat & birds” section of Samara’s dinner menu. No steak. No chicken. Chef Eric Anderson aims to take diners down a road less traveled at his intriguing new Sunset Hill restaurant. At the same time, he makes his own path challenging, choosing ingredients with a strict eye toward seasonality and environmental sustainability, and doing most of his cooking using a wood-fueled oven and a multilevel wood-fired grill.
Anderson learned to lasso fire during five years at Tom Douglas’ Palace Kitchen. He has a knack for manipulating smoke, heat and flame in a way that doesn’t obliterate the food’s innate taste. As proof, look no further than his majestic magret of duck. The tender, rosy breast, roasted on the bone over the fire and finished in the oven, could be a stand-in for steak. It comes to the table boneless and sliced, surrounded with sweet malted parsnips, tangy charred kumquats and toasted grains of wild rice. Anderson repeats that tantalizing troika of sweet, tart and crunch with his confit leg of duck, pairing that classic convergence of crackling skin and soft flesh with roasted celeriac and pistachio-citrus relish. For offal fans, the smoked duck livers, hearts and kidneys become a robust paté spread over fragile rye toast.
The meaty birds are Liberty ducks, an organic breed raised on corn and grains in an open, low-stress environment by Sonoma County Poultry. They turn up on high-end restaurant menus all over California and in the Pacific Northwest, including at Higgins in Portland. Before moving to Seattle, Anderson logged nearly four years at Greg Higgins’ eponymous restaurant and the James Beard Award-winning chef arranged stages for him in New York and Paris, experiences he regards as pivotal. It focused him on ingredients.
When it came to choosing pork for Samara’s menu, Anderson pondered Berkshire, then discovered The Sheepish Pig, a Kingston farm that is one of the few in Washington raising mangalitsa pigs. The woolly animals are a heritage breed developed in Hungary. They forage on native grasses and are fed nuts and organic feed. The meat is highly marbled and extremely flavorful, and Anderson uses it well. He grills thick, fat-streaked belly slices and pairs them with a sturdy red cabbage and fennel slaw piquantly dressed with pickled hot peach pepper vinaigrette. He balances three small ribs atop a fat sausage, then lavishes buttery cabbage and pork broth on that savory raft of meat. He makes capicola from the shoulder and uses thin slices of the cured meat to belt asparagus, singeing each small bundle over the fire, sprinkling it with olive oil and serving it shingled with scoparola, a briefly aged sheep’s milk cheese.
Scoparola turned up at brunch, too. Shavings of cheese and crisp porchetta were scattered like confetti over an egg baked into the center of a flatbread pizza whose puffy, golden rim glistened with herbed anchovy oil. The pizza dough, like the three kinds of dinner bread (walnut, rye and potato), is the work of baker Andrew Meltzer, a co-founder of Columbia City Bakery who once taught his craft at the Culinary Institute of America. He’s not only a talented bread baker. His breakfast pastries (blackberry-laced crème fraîche coffee cake, smoky cheddar scones, cinnamon sugar morning buns, croissants and other laminated treats), baked in an electric convection oven in his basement pastry kitchen, are among the best anywhere.
On Saturday and Sunday mornings, a basket of baked goods resides on Samara’s soapstone counter. Sitting there gets you close enough to feel the fire’s warmth, but the eight saddle stools aren’t as comfortable as the contoured seats of the maple chairs that were carved by an Amish artisan in Ohio. The tables are refurbished fir salvaged from a dismantled Lake Union pier. The wainscoting is red oak. Seattle-based Mutuus Studio collaborated on the restaurant’s interior design, which is in step with the neighborhood’s Craftsman-style architecture. After dark, the interior is lit for maximum chiaroscuro drama — a date-night domain if ever there was one. You can even murmur endearments to your sweetie here. The sound abatement panels built into the ceiling really do dampen the noise.
The menu goes beyond meat, birds and brunch to embrace seafood and vegetables. Deep-cupped Maro-Ishi oysters were warmed on the grill and doused with apple cider mignonette. Manila clams, fingerling potatoes and grilled spring onions basked in smoky broth. A vibrant tarragon and parsley emulsion swirled around warm, butter-bathed Dungeness crab, nearly smothering a browned and crisped rice cake — a welcome contrast in textures. (At brunch, they gild this lily with a soft-boiled egg.)
Anderson likes butter but uses a judicious amount of acid for balance. Brown butter vinaigrette sauced grilled broccoli rabe and radishes, as well as sunchokes that emerged from the embers still a little hard. (They are now being baked in salt with more consistent results). Butter-poached salsify, a pale, mild root vegetable that resembles a less-sweet parsnip, was dolled up to dazzling effect with sumac and dots of puréed fruit — tart grapefruit and sweet dates.
Mint and pickled fennel brightened a smoke-kissed olive tapenade. It heads a list of snacks that includes chicken skins brined and baked to a craggy, crackling crisp. They are warmed in the oven just before serving and sprinkled with buttermilk and chives. Imagine potato chips and onion dip, without the potato.
You’ll want something to drink with those nibbles. The intimate space (capacity 38) leaves no room for a full bar, but they offer a handful of interesting cocktails, pre-made in small batches. “Vamos!” is a mix of smoky mezcal and bitter amaro with fruity hibiscus notes that goes particularly well with the food. Master Sommelier Chris Tanghe consulted on the wine list, drawn largely from small, biodynamic producers. They are wide-ranging geographically and varietally, and cluster in price from $50-$100 a bottle, though each is available by the glass or half bottle as well.
Samara is only three months old, but already seems mature, and at 43, so is Anderson. He’s taken time to refine his vision, putting as much thought into the restaurant’s name as everything else. Samaras are the winged seeds that twirl down from maple trees. Samara is also the name of a house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright whose organic architectural style is not only mirrored in the restaurant’s design but reflected in the chef’s desire to source ingredients that are in harmony with the environment. The house, in West Lafayette, Indiana, is roughly two hours south of Downers Grove, the suburb of Chicago where Anderson grew up in an area thick with maple trees. He liked the symmetry. And I like Samara very much.
6414 32nd Ave. N.W., Sunset Hill
Hours: dinner Wednesday-Sunday 5-10 p.m.; brunch Saturday and Sunday 10 a.m.-2 p.m.
Prices: $$$ (snacks, small plates and large $7-$32)
Drinks: short list of pre-made, small-batch cocktails; wines by the glass, half bottle or bottle
Service: attentive, informed
Credit cards: all major
Access: no obstacles