You’ve probably been told not to spoil your appetite with the bread basket at a restaurant. This is either because the typically-stale rolls aren’t worth it, or because you’re supposed to save room for the entrees. Ever since people stopped eating bread as a meal replacement hundreds of years ago, we’ve been programmed to consider it an afterthought.

But at Samara, an upscale American restaurant in Sunset Hill, the bread and other baked goods aren’t an afterthought at all - it’s what elevates this comfortable neighborhood restaurant into a place we’d travel across town for dinner.

The tastiest elements of Samara’s pastry operation can be found scattered throughout the menu. The bread basket, instead of the usual Macrina baguette, is a pile of fluffy potato bread, soft pretzel buns, and slices of sturdy walnut bread that would turn a simple BLT into the Porsche of sandwiches. The cheese plate comes with homemade flatbread pieces that blur the line between shortbread and crackers. And then you have the desserts, which range from a fudgy cake topped with a torched marshmallow to a bunch of fresh cookies that would earn you a stocking full of gold on Christmas morning if you left them out for Santa.

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photo credit: Nate Watters

Samara’s space reminds us that at the end of the day, this is a restaurant and not a bakery. You can smell (and get a decent visual of) the rustic-looking hearth grilling things like duck legs, cabbage, and sausages while you sip some biodynamic wine with your parents or significant other.

The small plates and entrees here still make for a great meal even though the baked goods are better. The portions aren’t huge, so it’s disappointing to pay up to $32 for a main, but that’s all the more reason to eat a lot of bread and save room for dessert. Even the mangalitsa pork belly, which has a terrific sear and an ideal meat-to-fat ratio, isn’t tremendously heavy. If you’re looking for one of the more substantial entrees, though, order the almond-crusted halibut, which comes with roasted vegetables and an herby charred-scallion sauce. All of these plates are elegant, simple, and don’t sacrifice flavor for the sake of looking pretty. But, unlike the bread and pastries, they aren’t going to blow you away.

When you’re stuck deciding on a spot for a first date or where to take your out-of-town relatives, pull Samara out of your back pocket (and make room for some pretzel rolls). And if you want to come here and only eat bread, crackers, cookies, and cake, you should. If anyone scolds you for that, shove a slice of potato loaf in their mouth.

Food Rundown

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Bread Service

This is the best $6 you’ll spend here. Take advantage of the cultured butter and spreadable whipped pork fat that comes on the side.

Fire Roasted Olive Tapenade

This delicious tapenade is tossed with mint and served on top of a huge, flaky cracker that you won’t want to share with anyone else.

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Charred Carrots

These massive carrots change with the season, but we’ve tried them with toasted hazelnut milk and orange zest. They’re perfectly cooked in the middle and have a nice char, but we would rather eat these with a real sauce instead of some nut milk.

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Mangalitsa Pork Belly

We’re all in favor of eating bacon with a fork and knife and calling it dinner. That’s how we feel when we eat this cured mangalitsa pork belly - it’s smoky, tender, and usually comes with some tart dressed cabbage that cuts through the fat nicely.

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Almond-Crusted Halibut

There are times when a nice piece of fish is the answer, like on those rare occasions when you don’t want bacon for dinner. Samara’s halibut might sound simple, but it’s incredibly satisfying. Topped with crunchy almonds underneath some roasted vegetables and an herby green sauce, this halibut could make any meat lover jealous.

Duck Leg

Forgettable, and not very juicy. Skip the duck.

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Dark Chocolate Torte

This dark chocolate torte with coffee creme anglaise and a caramelized marshmallow topping makes us want to travel back in time and tell our child selves, sitting around the campfire with a sad Honey Maid s’mores, that there’s this cake in Ballard that’s gonna blow their mind in about 20 years.

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A Few Cookies

Tall glasses of milk all over the world wish they could roll with this entourage of outstanding cookies. Every order has four different cookies, with options like rugelach, powdered sugar snowballs, biscotti, and warm salted chocolate chip. Get a coffee and dunk your heart out.

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