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Dec 2, 2011 11:26 AM

First Visit to Altura

I had my first dinner at Altura last night, and it was one of the most enjoyable experiences I’ve had in a long time. I thought the conception of the dishes, the balance of flavors, and the execution of the preparations were outstanding. For instance, a small bowl of Matsutake mushroom soup with some shaved raw Matsutakes on top wondrously captured the pure essence of the mushrooms. The prosciutto-wrapped sturgeon was a study in how to perfectly cook sturgeon – which is notoriously hard to get exactly right. Chef Nathan Lockwood first cooks the sturgeon sous-vide (without the benefit of a fancy machine), and then finishes it by sautéing prior to serving. It was accompanied by toasted pumpkin seeds, a luscious, naturally sweet puree of Kabocha squash, and Brussels sprouts leaves. My desert was poached quince on amaretti crumbs topped with vanilla gelato drizzled with a 25-year-old Gold Seal Aceto Balsamico. The flavors and textures of this desert were perfectly balanced and the overall result defied criticism. Did I have some minor nits to pick? Yes. Two pastas were under-seasoned (a problem with the salt level in the pasta water), which was easily corrected by asking for some salt and adding it to the pastas after they were served. My grilled Wagu cullotte steak was slightly overcooked for my preference, particularly on the thinner, tapered ends of the steak, but it was still one of the most intensely flavorful and lusciously tender steaks I’ve had in a long, long time. The tajarin wasn’t quite as ethereal as that made at Spinasse, but it was still first-rate, and the chanterelles and shaved Alba white truffle more than compensated. So these are only very minor nits. The overall meal was absolutely marvelous. Chef Lockwood’s attention to sourcing is intense, and it shows in his dishes. The butter served at Altura is Crémerie Classique from Larsen’s Creamery in Oregon, and Chef Lockwood can discourse at length over the texture and flavor differences of different butters (e.g., Crémerie Classique vs. Plugra vs. Vermont Butter & Cheese) or American producers of Wagyu beef (Snake River Farms vs. Mishima Ranch). The meal certainly isn’t cheap, but neither is the cost of the uniformly high quality ingredients (you can purchase your own Gold Seal Aceto Balsamico for a mere $239.25 for a 3.4 ounce bottle).

My overall first impression: Chef Lockwood certainly has a place among the best chefs in the Greater Seattle Area (e.g., Holly Smith, Jason Stratton, Rachel Yang and Seif Chirchi), and Altura is destined for the top tier of high-end Seattle restaurants. A big bravissimo to the chef and staff at Altura!

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  1. Tom,

    I read the review just this morning, and am very interested in eating here soon.

    Thank you for your always-trusted comments, which I actually trust more than a stranger review:)

    I am curious about pricing - the review stated that the price was $49 for 3 courses, $59 for 4, and $69 for 6; this seems very reasonable to me... did you find this to be the case?
    Review also says no ala carte pricing shows on menu... what was your experience?

    I want to go eat the sturgeon especially - my favorite fish!

    4 Replies
    1. re: gingershelley

      I found the chef and staff at Altura to be very flexible on choices among the various menus offered. They have one main dinner menu from which you can choose any 3 courses for $49, any 4 courses for $59, and any 5 (not 6) courses for $69. There is no a la carte pricing. You can select anything you want from the entire menu for your choices, meaning that you are not limited to one selection each from the various categories of appetizer, pasta, entrée, cheese, and dessert. If you want to choose the 3-course option and have 3 entrées, you can. They also have special menus from time to time. For example, when I was there they had an “early winter tasting in seven courses” for $87. or $125 with Alba white truffles included. I was told that I could order individual dishes off the early winter tasting menu for a 3, 4, or 5-course tasting to expand the choices from the regular dinner menu. If, for example, I said I wanted a 3-course meal, but with the tajarin with white truffles, I’m pretty sure that they would have accommodated that request, but obviously with an appropriate upcharge for the white truffles. In general, I think they are very eager to please and will try to accommodate, within reason, special requests of their guests.

      Is the pricing reasonable? Well, that's a hard question to answer about any high-end restaurant when you think of the number of meals you could have at places like Huong Binh or Noodle Boat for price of a single meal at a high-end place. But, compared to other high-end places (e.g., Book Bindery, Café Juanita), the prices seem fair, especially given the labor-intensiveness of the preparations and the cost of the carefully sourced and selected ingredients, many of which are very expensive (e.g., Wagyu beef). Since actions speak louder than words, all I can say is that, on the way out from my initial visit, I made another reservation for Dec. 21 when my mother-in-law and brother-in-law will be visiting from New York.

      Hope this helps answer your questions.

      1. re: Tom Armitage

        Thanks Tom,

        Looks like I know where I am dining for my birthday Dec. 23rd!
        Appreciate the insightful response.

        Happy holidays

        1. re: Tom Armitage

          Great write up. I, too, am very interested in this place. Each year I have dinner with my cousins when they are in town for the holidays. Since we get together so rarely, and lots of laughter generally ensues, we need a place where we will not be the loudest people in the room. What's the vibe of the dining room like?

          1. re: Lauren

            Sorry for the delayed response. I'm in Los Cabos at the moment, so Chowhound isn't my first priority. Shrimp tacos and chicharron tacos for breakfast. Yea!

            I think the ambience would be fine for your group. It's not at all a stuffy or formal vibe. Anyway, anyone who objects to hearing laughter is a jerk. Here's to fun and laughter. Happy holidays!

      2. Hi, Tom:

        Hope Cabo warmed your bones. And thanks for the thoughtful review.

        How would you characterize portion sizes at Altura? I'm not insistent on outsized, "Claim Jumper" food, but neither am I happy reaching for my readers to examine "Lampreia"-sized plates.


        1 Reply
        1. re: kaleokahu

          The portion sizes at Altura vary somewhat with the number of courses you order. For example, if you get a special seven-course menu, the size of each course will be smaller than if you get a three-course menu. The chef is sensitive, as I think is appropriate, to the total amount of food a person can reasonably eat in one meal. So, if you are focusing just on cost per ounce of food, a three-course menu would probably be a better value than a seven-course menu. That said, I would characterize the portion sizes of the three-course, four-course, and five-course menus as “moderate” – not three bites and you’re done, but certainly not what one would think of as large portions.

          I’m all warmed up and tan, thanks to the week in Cabo and also spending Thanksgiving week on Kauai. By the way, my big disappointment on Kauai was that my favorite place for traditional Hawaiian food, a small family restaurant in Kapa’a called Ohana Diner, closed down because the landlord doubled their rent. I did, however, have saimin and lilikoi (passion fruit) pie at Hamura’s Saimin Stand, a quite good tripe stew at Dani’s, some good poke from Koloa Fish Market, the wonderful malasadas from Kauai Malasadas, and lots of fresh tropical fruit (e.g., apple bananas, pink guavas, longan) from the local farmers’ markets (“sunshine markets”).

        2. I was reminded last night of one of the reasons for the general practice of professional restaurant critics eating at least three times at a restaurant before reviewing it. (For an interesting view on this and other aspects of restaurant reviewing, read Robert Sietsma’s article in the Columbia Journalism Review, “Everyone Eats . . . But that doesn’t make you a restaurant critic,” Last night, I returned for my second visit to Altura. This time I was accompanied by my 86-year-old mother-in-law and my brother-in-law who are visiting from Long Island, New York, and my wife. My overall experience was not as positive as my first visit, about which I wrote in my original post above, but I think that my reaction may have been influenced by some extrinsic factors. We’d like to think that our analysis and reaction to food is objective, focusing solely on taste, texture, etc. But, given the inherent subjectivity of the aesthetic experience of eating, this just isn’t the case. On my first visit to Altura, my wife and I were alone, sitting at the counter overlooking the kitchen and I had the opportunity to chat with the chef about technique, sourcing, and other subjects that I found interesting and informative. Last night, our group of four sat at a table, and – how shall I say this – our interpersonal dynamics wound up irritating me and making me grumpy. So one reason for eating three times at a restaurant before reviewing it isn’t just because the food itself may change from one experience to another, but the general mood and “baggage” of the reviewer may also change from one experience to another. And I think that may have been the case for me last night.

          With that disclaimer, I’ll say that none of the dishes were “bad.” They were all good, and there were some knockout successes, like the perfectly prepared veal sweetbreads, lightly crispy on the outside and wonderfully silky inside, served with the brilliant pairing of sea urchin. Pappardelle with a ragu of tripe and oxtail was similarly off-the-charts wonderful, with the gelatinous nature of the tripe and oxtail absorbing and softening the heat of Calabrian peppers. The parsnip gnocchi with wild boar ragu was also excellent. And a roasted squash sformato had me swooning. But the grilled kampachi was overcooked for my preference; a chicken rotolo, okay but not spectacular on its own, didn’t marry with the accompanying foie gras, making it like two separate dishes served on the same plate; the Barolo-marinated venison was also okay but didn’t rock my world (I liked my wife’s perfectly cooked rosy pink pancetta-laced pork loin better); my mother-in-law’s and brother-in-law’s ribeye steak was good, but not as good as a steak I had the week before at Nell’s; and the tortelloni with tails and trotters pork and the tajarin with sweetbread and wild mushroom ragu were both nice, but didn’t make me roll my eyes. Our servers, both on this visit and the previous visit, were very knowledgeable about both the food and wine, but there were notable lapses, like bread and butter not being served until I finally had to ask for it (after a much later-arriving table adjacent to ours had been served their bread and butter), and wine pairings not being served until well after the course was on the table. We ordered cocktails to start, but they were very long in arriving.

          So, this experience, perhaps influenced by my grumpiness, was more mixed than my first visit. At a cost of $150 per person (three of us sprang for the wine pairings), was it worth it? My mother-in-law and wife thought so. Would I return again? Yes. I think the chef, Nathan Lockwood, aims high and has the talent to hit the bull’s-eye most of the time. And I don’t really trust my objectivity about this last visit. So I’ll happily return again and satisfy the “rule” of three visits. I’ll report on visit number three although, given the cost, it may be a while before that visit occurs.

          1. Thanks for sharing another visit Tom. Your observations about how your personal situation affects the dining experience is well taken as well.
            I find if I am tired or Grumpy in any way, it can certainly affect both my taste buds, and any patience I need to have with waitstaff lapses (tho I hope, like you do, do not have to need patience in that arena at a restaurant of that price point!).
            I hope Mr. Lockwood is reading your posts here, and takes your comments to heart.

            We will be dining there the first week of January, and I will post as well after the visit.

            2 Replies
            1. re: gingershelley

              I'll look forward to hearing about your experience. It will be nice when more Chowhounds share their experiences, and a more general sense of Altura emerges.

              1. re: Tom Armitage

                Yes Tom,
                I agree; I tend to trust the CH's I respect here more than most of our local critics... we seem to have a dearth of truly respectable resto critic opinions in this town, or at least their writing leaves something to desire.
                I believe that Altura is probably still having moments of new resto mistakes. So far, from the comments/reviews, I think they are out of the gate with more style and flavor than most new openings.
                More soon,
                Happy Holidays.

            2. My SO and I dined at Altura over the weekend to celebrate my birthday. We LOVED it. The only disappointing thing for me was that they didn't wish me a happy birthday. Oh well.

              We sat at the counter, but at the end so we could watch the meat plates being cooked and assembled, but not really close enough to talk to the chef. The food was outstanding, but overwhelming. We ended up just ordering the 7 dishes we wanted, and then split the first app, then served us each a three course meal. I had a 3 wine pairing that turned into 5, curtesy of our waiter, who was very nice and helpful. The bread and butter are pretty terrific...and the service was great with one hiccup (other than not wishing me a happy birthday - boo!) they forgot to reset our silverware before serving the pasta course, so we had to flag someone down to get forks. No biggie.

              Here's what we ate:
              Chopped beef carpaccio. Not sure what makes this a carpaccio rather than a tartare, but it was great.
              Duck sausage and crostini with duck liver mousse. Outstanding!
              Kampachi crudo with blood orange and olive tapenade. Probably my least favorite dish. I am not usually a fan of blood orange, but this was tamed enough that it didn't taste like a sweet tart candy. Everything tasted good on it's own (the olives, the orange, the fish) but I didn't understand them together at all.

              Papardelle with ragu of tripe and oxtail. This was outstanding. There was quite a bit of tripe in it, but it was perfectly cooked and tasty (I am not usually a particular fan of tripe) and it has a little heat.
              Duck anglotti in truffle butter. Quite nice, but not a big standout for me.

              Coulotte steak. Tasty and perfectly medium rare. While really nice, this was a little boring. There were a ton of them leaving the kitchen, but next time I'd probably opt for something more interesting.
              Ling cod over melted leeks, with crispy potatoes and sea urchin. This was a real standout. Highly recommended.

              2 Replies
              1. re: akq

                Great report. Thanks. It's almost impossible to find a restaurant that hits a home run on every single dish prepared. But, it seems like your experience was similar to mine on my two visits. They hit more home runs than most places in Seattle, and when they hit a home run it's WAY out of the park. In addition, there are plenty of singles, doubles, and triples to make a visit here worthwhile. I totally agree that the papardelle with tripe and oxtail, the chopped beef carpaccio (and I agree with you on the mystery of calling this dish carpaccio), and the duck liver mousse are all home runs. The ling cod with sea urchin also sounds wonderful.

                1. re: Tom Armitage

                  So wanted to try it. A friend made a reservation several months ago for last night. Traffic was terrible coming from the Eastside because of the 520 closure and even with allowing an hour we were running late. We called and told them what was going on and they said the policy was that they would only hold a table 20 minutes. We reassured them that we were coming. At the 20 minute mark we called and said we were 4 blocks away - they said they had "sold" the table. Had a wonderful time and meal at Artusi instead!