First Visit to Altura
- Tom Armitage Dec 2, 2011 11:26 AM
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!
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!
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.
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?
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!
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”).
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,” http://www.cjr.org/feature/everyone_e...) 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.
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.
re: Tom Armitage
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.
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.
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.
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!
Not worth the hype, sadly that’s all I can say about Altura. I had been looking forward to this meal for a while, and had a tough week so excited at the idea of feeling pampered for a few hours.
4 of us went last weekend. My husband doesn’t drink and we wanted the “chef’s tasting menu” which is only priced paired with wines. We asked the server and he had to check with “the higher ups” eventually he came back and told us rather disapprovingly that they could do it and would charge us for the 5 course. I have a hard time believing this was the first time a nondrinker has come to the restaurant, for them to make him feel awkward is unconscionable. To top it off he was never asked if he would like something else to drink (and we were never offered sparkling water). I felt like I should remind them that this is the “hospitality industry” and they should at least make an attempt to appear hospitable.
Several of the courses were split with one side of the table getting one dish and the other side getting a different course, each paired with different wines. While I don’t mind this per se, the waiter never told us until we asked what was happening. Because my husband was not drinking I only got to taste the pairing with my dish (the other couple traded plates as well as glasses, these were new friends so sharing a glass felt overly intimate). Additionally the interest and level of the foods were quiet disparate. For instance I got what was the best dish of the evening, beet green gnudi with rabbit ragu (YUM YUM YUM) hubby received potato gnoccini with lamb ragu YAWN.
Of the 7 course most were rather boring, porchetta that was so tough I could barely cut it. Steak with Roasted Turnips and Celery Root Puree well done but another YAWN... Besides the gnudi the only other standout was the amuse of Hamachi crudo and pickled beets a truly delicious bite of fish.
At the end of our meal and nearly $400 later I was still hungry, not feeling restored I must say I see no reason to go back.
That's disappointing to hear. Perhaps inconsistency in service is a problem for this resto...when I dined there, the server was really nice about explaining how things worked, giving suggestions and basically had a "tell me what you want and we'll make it happen" attitude. My SO and I ordered different numbers of courses, SO had no wine, I had the wine pairings but fewer than the number of courses I ordered and it was no problem. I think we ordered 9 courses total and I ordered 3 wine pairings but the waiter ended up bringing me some extra and spliting some so I could taste some pairings with dishes my SO ordered as well as the different pairings with the dishes I ordered.
We finally had our first meal at Altura last night, and I am happy to report, it was a real success on most counts.
Sat at the far West end of the counter facing into the open kitchen, chef's plating right in front of us. Very nice setting. Enjoyed the kitchen brigade's work, and it is an adventagious pair of seats in that the wine station is to the right of this past a gap where many of the plates come out, so we had interaction with quite a variety of staff, including a couple of conversations with Chef Lockwood.
Did our usual and ordered tasting menus (just did 3 course) with wine pairings. We each eat 1/2 the plate we order, then switch plates and wines. This works well for us, so we can try more tastes and wines.
After consulting with each other on what we would get, we ended up choosing a pretty standard set; starter each, 2 items from the secondi section, and 2 from the 'mains'. I had been going to shake it up and do 2 starters and a main (I was very atracted to that flexible menu feature!), but after the discussion, went with a more standard plan.
There was a bit of a too-long pause before our wines arrived; as they only came out seconds before the first course, so we sat for about 12 minutes with nothing but water. I can see that the house is intending for the wine to go with the food, but it might have mad sense to see if you might then wish for an aparatif, or such while waiting. If it had been suggested, I think we would have 'bit'...
For starters, I had a lovely rare Albacore with beets, caperberry, salsa verde vs. his foie gras with rhubarb, strawberries and aged balsamic, with a sauteed Brioche toast that was the only quibble on this course - toast a bit greasy (who needs more fat on a plate of foie?). But fab plating, and both wines excellent and a great match. I will say the Albarino with the tuna being most inspired.
Seconds were a spot on Risi E Bisi, which in this case was a Canarolli risotto with fresh peas, prosciutto, parmesan brodo. Very alive, and tasting of spring. Other choice was the least favored of the night; a rabbit Agnalotti dish. On the menu it said it was 'in Sugo with olives and rosemary", but instead arrived in a rich broth, with olives and bits of green I believe was dandelion. broth and pasta were very good, but the rabbit filling was a bit dry. Kind of rillette-like shredded quality to it, and while flavorful, it could have used some fat or other ingredients for supporting the filling.
Mains were for me, Day Boat halibut with potato crust, fava beans, roasted spring onion, and wood sorrel. I saw multiples of this plate going out of the kitchen from our seats, and was very excited for this course. The wood sorrel was a lovely paste set inside a roasted morel mushroom, and was the best part of this dish. Unfortunately, while clearly very fresh and tasty, the halibut itself was a tad overcooked, and slightly dry. Had this not been the case - this would have been a standout course. As it was, the favetta, roasted onion and stuffed morel were simply perfect, and the halibut a mere expensive chunk of protein playing very second fiddle to what in theory was the supporting cast! I must say though, I would glady go back and eat an entire plate of those stuffed wild morels. Wine was a nice un-oaked Chardonnay, the provenance I do not recall, sadly.
Dinner partners main was the current duck item; rare roasted breast with a nutty Farro, poached rhubarb, cherry mostardo and balsamic. The Rhubarb was a hit, and the mostardo was particulary complex, and both were excellent with the properly rare duck. This plate was very balanced and quite well executed. The Syrah to accompany was also very good, with a wonderful nose and complex tobacco and cherry notes. Just right.
So mostly very pleased with the food, atmosphere, plating and service. The only off notes were our actual waiter, who seemed a bit artificial, especially compared to the relaxed proffesionalism of the wine server, and another female staffer who delivered one of our courses and explained the plates.
The bread service was also very good, and refilled without asking (my French dining companion always puts away alot of baguette!).
Our consensus is that we would return, and that the value for the meal was quite reasonable.
Great report, gingershelly. I’d been looking forward to it, and was interested to learn that your experience was generally positive.
After thinking about our favorite places to eat in Seattle, my wife and I chose to celebrate our 16th wedding anniversary by returning to Altura last Friday night. Any doubts I might have had after my last reported experience here (where I questioned the negative effect of my grumpy mood) were compellingly erased. It was an absolutely spectacular experience in every aspect of the meal – the creativeness and quality of the food, the wine pairing, and the service. It’s not often when this somewhat jaded eater gets this excited and walks away from a meal on cloud nine, but that’s exactly what happened. From the amuse-bouche (an amazingly delicious asparagus flan) to the dessert, my wife and I spent the evening exchanging knowing looks and rolling our eyes with wonder and admiration as we experienced each of our five-courses. (Like you, my wife and I do the plate switcheroo thing to double our experience.) Standouts included the perfectly tender and moist grilled octopus; the asparagus and duck egg; the smoked kampachi with an amazing combination of anchovy crumb and smoked steelhead roe; tagliatelle with basil-fed snails from the Mt. Shasta area in California; the pappardelle with braised tripe and oxtail, a favorite of both my wife and me, which carried a little more heat (cayenne?) than the last time I had it, to good effect; and an absolutely perfectly cooked and flavorful Snake River Farms ribeye. My wife swooned as much over her marcarpone gelato drizzled with Aceto balsamico as I did over my astonishingly delicious sorrel sorbet paired with a moscato poached peach. The evening turned out to be one of those rare magical experiences where simply everything was extraordinary. The nits I had previously picked with service were nowhere in evidence. The well-chosen wine pairings came right when they should. And the food – ah, the food. Chef Lockwood’s passion for sourcing – finding unusual ingredients like the basil-fed snails and always searching for higher quality products – is matched by the creativity of his pairings and his technical execution of the dishes. My wife and I enthusiastically concurred that our dinner last Friday night was one of the best overall experiences we have had in a long, long time.
re: Tom Armitage
Glad to hear you had such a lovely evening at Altura again. Happy Anniversary!
The food sounds amazing (basil-fed snails? Oh my!), and so glad the service and wine was spot on for you as well.
It is so difficult if one is enjoying the food, but having service issues, or vice versa. When the whole comes together, eating out is indeed one of life's sublime pleasures!
Glad for another fine report for this establishment. I am intending to go back soon as well. I find the value there quite good - better than many SEA resto's.