Author: Clement, Bethany Jean
Date published: November 30, 2011
There's an angel on high at Altura, and she looks very serious. This isn't a latter-day angel with fluffy white wings and an I'll-be-your-angel-this-evening-how-may-I-help-you smile;
this angel survived the bombing of a chapel in France during World War II, and she hovers in the back of Altura with a masklike visage, inscrutable and somewhat scary. "Every angel is terrifying," Rilke said-only after the terror would epiphany come, your senses flooded, your life changed.
In Italian, "Altura" means, roughly, a place on high. There's no terror at Altura, but there is an almost intimidating level of transcendence. The restaurant is on Capitol Hill, joining Poppy, Olivar, and Bako in the new finer-dining pocket at the north end of Broadway. Your first bite of your first course at Altura-maybe of ruby-red, paper-thin beef carpaccio, the kind of meat that melts on your tongue and tastes almost sweet-shows you the essence of something, makes the world around you fall away. When food becomes drug, it is very fine dining indeed.
Nathan and Rebecca Lockwood, the coowners of Altura, first met five blocks down the street at the very unrarified Broadway Dick's. Rebecca graduated from law school at UW; she's Altura's business manager. Nathan was chef de cuisine at San Francisco's Acquerello when it earned a Michelin star; he also worked at the renowned Fleur de Lys, and most recently was chef at posh Seattle private club the Ruins, where they must be crying hot, wealthy tears into their soup at having lost him. Altura sommelier Guy Kugel worked for 10 years at Flying Fish.
Nathan Lockwood's promise at Altura is "the freshest seasonal foods, simply prepared and perfectly presented," but that sounds like any good farm-totable restaurant in the city. Dinner at Altura costs more- while à la carte is permissible, the menu lists no individual prices, instead offering three courses for $49, four for $59, and five for $69. (On our first visit, our world's-best-waiter, Ron, informed us we could order from anywhere on the menu, raising the pleasant possibility of an all-entrée pig-out-but then you'd miss out on the pasta, which would be tragic, and who can resist the allure of appetizers?) Dinner at Altura also starts with a complimentary aperitivo, like a refreshing combination of citrus water, mint, and Campari. Then, an amuse-bouche-one evening, a caramelly kabocha squash soup with brown butter and hazelnuts on top, served in an adorable little dish (on a tiny placemat, upon another little dish); another time, a few bites of silken duck pâté, sweetened with Jonagold apple, with nutty toast-crisps.
This is food of another order: Every plate is painstakingly composed, every bite compelling. The carpaccio, for example, comes with simple enough stuff: greens, lemon, anchovy, Parmesan. The greens, though, are puntarelle-only the tender bits of a certain variety of chicory ("preparation is a pain," the internet notes), traditionally used in a Roman edition of Caesar salad. Here the puntarelle provides a precise counterpart (the chicory pepperiness, the anchovy dressing's punch) to the beef. Also with the carpaccio, unlisted on the menu: a buttery-toasted bread cube that-unless I was hallucinating; it was kind of too great to be believed-was leaking a béchamel-type sauce from its insides, itself topped with a fried quail egg. When you're eating this, you can feel the angel's eyes on you.
Same with kampachi served two ways: as stellar sashimi with shaved celery and finger lime ("the caviar of citrus," according to the Los Angeles Times), and smoked with charred scallions and creamy tonnato sauce (in Altura's most high-minded presentation, the smoked kampachi comes under glass, which, when pulled away, sets free a wispy cloud of hickory smoke). Tuna ventresca: a piece of the belly, barely grilled ("Foods not overcooked may be hazardous," the menu understatedly editorializes). Seared-thenchilled foie gras: a big medallion of it with sweet-and-sour persimmon mostarda, two small toasts, crispy-fried mint leaves, and scattered pomegranate seeds. (If anything was amiss at my two dinners at Altura, it was only that there was a lot of mostarda, and it wasn't quite interesting enough to eat on its own. On the other hand, there were stripes of balsamic reduction, heralding the return of the squeeze bottle. After all those farm-totable plates, it's nice to see stripes again.)
The pasta at Altura is every inch as good as, if not better than, what's considered the best in town (that is, Spinasse). Fettuccini was tender but firm; lamb and beef ragu was ideal for a winter's night, not too rough and not too fine, with a just-right afterthought of warming hot pepper. A rabbit agnolotti was amazingly light-very thin wrappings of pasta seeming to buoy the meat filling in a shallow pool of broth with Italian Saracena olives (and celery leaves and bits of carrot, too, like a little joke on the rabbit). Both tajarin with chanterelles, butter, and sage and parsnip gnocchi were in that class of simple things made so carefully that they become transformative.
One night, at one end of the long marble counter that's front-row seating for Altura's long, narrow kitchen, one couple just ordered a glass of wine and two pastas that looked like double portions. This caused food envy, even while eating our own pasta and anticipating entrées.
Depending on your temperament, sitting at an open kitchen can be diffi- cult-you might get empathetically stressed during a rush, or you might see little interactions indicative of underlying discord. Sitting at Altura's counter is relatively relaxing. They have their timing down, and the patter only occasionally gets brusque; the workings seem well-oiled, and the attention to detail is astonishing.
Watching Nathan Lockwood cook meat could turn all but the staunchest vegetarian around-so much butter and beautiful herbs, and the way that he spoons the panjuices up over the top obsessively, just to make it as good as it can be. There's a special shelf where the meat gets appropriate rest, too, before meeting the grill and then your mouth. The Wagyu culotte steak one night was superlative-a gorgeous cut from Snake River Farms, served with king trumpet mushrooms (the cooking secrets of which the chefs willingly shared), a red wine pan-sauce, and arancini, which are golden-fried Italian risotto balls from heaven. An awesome, in the true sense of the word, slow-roasted duck breast came with red cabbage and caramelroasted turnips, as listed on the menu, but also a slab of sweet daikon and roasted apple, too. One night's lamb was Anderson Ranch done three ways: braised shoulder, roasted loin, smokey rib, all delicious. Scallops, so often overcooked, were wrapped in pancetta for a protective, fatty embrace, served with a parsnip puree that was like a vegetal version of whipped cream, along with bitter-thensweet, crunchy-and-slippery grilled fennel and radicchio.
If you can eat more than three courses at Altura, then you are a hero of appetite. I tried to eat a vanilla-rum semifreddo with huckleberries one night. Another time I wanted the cheeses-kept tantalizingly in a special glass box on the counter-very, very much, but just couldn't do it. The couple just eating pasta are onto something, to be sure. But if you're able, a multicourse dinner at Altura is the sort of elevated eating you'll feel lucky to do even once in your lifetime, in Seattle or anywhere. The angel is waiting.