Some restaurants treat their wood-burning grills like status symbols that give good backdrop. Eric Anderson treats the one at Samara like the center of gravity—of his menu but also quite literally. Enter this handsome dining room on a Sunset Hill corner and the vaguely medieval flame chamber lords over the open kitchen’s tan brick wall with the focal authority of a big-screen TV.
It definitely handles the bro basics: grill duck and pig. But cooking over a fire’s like a caveman version of Microsoft Excel; experienced practitioners can do so much more than elemental formulas and functions. Anderson’s grill—one of those grates you winch closer or farther from the hearth with an overhead crank wheel—is hopping from noon prep time until the final burnt marshmallow tops the dark chocolate torte at close. By day, it roasts olives for the tapenade and suffuses smoke into morels previously plumped up with butter. By night those mushrooms join up with crispy breadcrumbs to wreathe a Technicolor white and gold egg, all those little labors fusing into savory terrain you’ll still remember three weeks from now.
Anderson—an understated guy with a close-cropped beard and speech that lacks extraneous “likes” and “ums”—channels fire’s primal pleasures into plates whose finesse occasionally requires tweezers. Butter’s often his intermediary of choice. Samara’s uncontested smash, the dungeness crab, begins with a patty of short-grain rice that doesn’t leave the grill until it’s as charred as Texan brisket (here, though, that’s thanks to vinegar and rice wine). Just when you think the cooks can’t fit any more butter-soaked crabmeat on top, they find a way to pile it higher. Pureed tarragon keeps the French influence from surrendering to Japan, but the real secret, says Anderson, is a crab broth reduced until its intensity reaches demi-glace levels. “You could probably even call it a double demi—we take five gallons and end up with about two quarts of it.”
Samara also inspires emotions about cabbage I never thought possible. Servers gave the chef major side-eye when he put the oven-roasted brassica on the menu. The crispy chicken skins or grilled oysters surely pack more curb appeal than these wedges of subdued green. Then, surprise—freak-out-level umami. Credit caramelization, a pool of emulsified dashi (vegetarian and made in-house) and butter, puffed rice for crunch, and burnt green garlic.
Anderson first cooked over fire at Il Fornaio in Portland, back in the late ’90s, when the only molten thing in most restaurant kitchens was the chocolate cake. He honed his meat bona fides at Higgins, one of that city’s dining landmarks, but reconnected with open flames during five years at Tom Douglas’s Palace Kitchen. “It was just so much fun to not turn the dial on the stove,” he recalls. The appeal for him back then was the same one that’s made civilization’s original cooking method one of its trendiest right now. “You’re so much more connected to how you were cooking, and what was happening.”
Seattle’s collective culinary riches carry an unjust downside. When an ambitious restaurant buzzes about its wood-burning grill, devotion to seasonal produce, or a zeal for whole-animal butchery, diners are about as awe-struck as they would be if you pledged to have chairs at every table. It’s hard to whip the public into Salt and Straw levels of frenzy when a score of other places in town follow the same formula, threatening an echo chamber of tartares and crispy pig’s ears—neither of which are on the menu here.
“We’re doing things other people are doing,” is Anderson’s humble take. “It’s important to us; it’s important to everybody.” None of those philosophies is easy to pull off. And yet none of them do enough to describe his food.
Before Samara opened in January, Anderson considered standard proteins like rib eyes and rotisserie chicken. Then he looked at the other menus in a mile radius. “That’s what everybody else had.” All his meat dishes come from either Liberty ducks or heritage pigs (with the exception of those crispy chicken skins, which he buys as castoffs from producers busy meeting America’s demand for skinless chicken breasts).
The chef and his fire turn those pigs—some raised in Douglas County, Oregon “just past where everybody grows marijuana”—into a sheaf of grilled pork. A pair of sear-speckled ribs arch over a fat length of kielbasa, and pork belly glistens with the promise of fat backed by texture. Even the stalk of bok choy that underpins this pig triptych on the plate has a robust char to it. Duck comes as either snacky wings or as a confit so tender it falls apart over its bed of greens, cherries, and pistachio-citrus relish at first nudge from your fork.
Food this impressive usually happens closer to the city center. Samara’s definitely in a neighborhood—one seemingly borrowed from the set of Stars Hollow, or really any Amy Sherman-Palladino show—but it’s not a neighborhood restaurant in the sense of cheeseburgers and Applebee’s jingles. Neighborhood restaurants don’t generally have potato and walnut breads, cider rye, and pretzel rolls in their bread service, or serve it with cultured butter and whipped Mangalitsa fat. Their ceilings don’t disguise acoustic panels to enable conversation. I had college boyfriends less attentive than the servers. There’s that trope that chefs are too focused on food to pay attention to the dining room, and then there’s Anderson, who spends a good chunk of dinner service standing sentinel behind the semitruck-size kitchen counter, surveying satisfaction levels out in his wood-paneled, many-windowed domain. Meanwhile he brainstorms subtle tweaks on the fly with his two busy cooks. One night I watched him ask a sous chef to inhale a plate’s aroma as they discussed how it might improve. The chef brought out a head of romaine as visual aid to further the discourse.
He’s not doing anything other people aren’t. He’s just making it feel new all over again.