It was a coincidence that Altura received a semi-finalist nomination for a James Beard Foundation award the day we had reservations. It made it all the more surprising that tables around us sat empty for hours as we ate, despite my needing to book two weeks out to get a reasonable time slot. After the level of service and cuisine we witnessed, I can’t help but wonder (hope!) if it was purposeful–to relax the kitchen and the waitstaff workload–so that the diner’s experience is impeccable.
If not, perhaps we were just fortunate that nobody read the nominations and tried to jump on the bandwagon. As it was, the biggest mistake we had all night was accidentally being served a second helping of the amuse bouche at a time when an intermezzo might have been more appropriate. Both times the small bit of duck liver mousse topped with cherry compote exemplified a balanced bite, with the soft spread holding together the crumbs falling from the crisped bread. The amuse was stronger than the small welcome cocktail we were served, a sip of mixture of pomegranate juice and something I can’t recall: a testament to the forgettability of the drink.
By the time the bread arrived, we were already suitably impressed with the service and the still-warm slices seemed to encourage us to talk about why. Altura takes itself seriously as a restaurant, at a moment in time where that’s not the most fashionable attitude. Another high-end Italian restaurant nearby once had us thinking that plaid shirts were actually the uniform for service staff–until we asked, and the waiter laughed, and explained it was just coincidence. Here, it was different. There were table runners. And chef’s coats. No plaid, no bandanas, no hi-jinks. That is not to say it was an overly serious place. In fact, I marveled at the enjoyment each chef, cook, and waiter seemed to be experiencing as they went about their evening’s work.
We ordered four appetizers and four pasta dishes, opting to skip the entrees. We had planned for dessert, but by the time we got there, it was out of the question. As we dug in, it occurred to me that nothing about this ostensibly Italian restaurant or the food it served was overly Italian, beyond that they served pasta. Our first few apps were barely an ingredient away from Japanese or French cuisine. The grilled octopus (bottom, left, above) avoided the beginner’s error of overcooking to shoe-leather toughness and married the brightness of mint with the heat of Calabrian peppers. For non-spice lovers, the waiter advised, you can pick around the chiles. I preferred to let the spice sear in, then cool down with the nearby butter beans. I was won over by this salad, though my tablemate favored the fish (bottom, right), for the clash of textures from toast point to raw fish. The veal sweetbreads (bottom, center) had been the first dish to arrive at the table and acted as a harbinger of the delicious to come: balanced flavors (kumquat and fennel), excellent execution (lightly cripsy, uniform texture within), and excitement inducing ingredients (spot prawns). I hesitate to call our fourth appetizer, the chopped carppacio, a miss, but it was not at the same level as the first three. First of all, I wanted to quibble that a chopped carppacio appears to be a fancy way of saying ‘tartare,’ but I held my tongue. While each of the elements (the meat, the olive puree, sardine, crouton, cheese sauce…etc.) were quite good, there was so much salt in each one that it would overwhelm them to put together. Eaten separately, we enjoyed all the parts with the exception of the somewhat overcooked quail egg.
When the pastas came out, again there was disagreement about the best dish, but in the best kind of way. My favorite was the nettle ravoli (bottom, left), whose brown butter flavor was as vibrant as the pasta was green. Luckily I didn’t have to fight for the right to mop the sauce up with that lovely bread, as B was busy exclaiming over the fluffiness of the gnocchi. I’ll agree, it was light enough that I half expected it to float to the surface, a cloud in a sea of spicy lamb and beef ragu. By the time our entree sized portions of pasta came, I was already looking in fear at their size. The papardelle with oxtail and tripe (upper right) was meaty and thick with the flavor of long-stewed tripe. If you’re a lover of that flavor, as we are, it is a wonder. I couldn’t endorse it better than by saying tripe haters will not understand. On the lighter side of the table, another vivaciously colored plate, purple and gold (go Huskies!) with cauliflower, green with broccoli, arrived. The cavatelli was amply sprinkled with tuna heart and strongly flavored with lemon. All of the pasta dishes included impeccably made pastas and very good flavors. It was just that by the end, I couldn’t take another bite. I do wish we had asked not to have them entree sized, when the waiter had explained what he was doing.
Everything is size-adjustable at Altura, making ordering easy. Just ask for what you want, the servers will sort it all out. I had actually been intimated by the ordering system before I sat and the waiter explained it at the beginning of the meal. But now we were at the end. I hadn’t looked to closely at the menu, but I knew I wasn’t going to be able to handle dessert. I knew I would miss out on the mascarpone gelato I wanted so badly. I knew I’d eaten too much, I knew I needed an amaro. So I asked Ron (our waiter). Amaro was brought. The night came to a delicious digestif finish.
Dinner at Altura is easy. There’s no stress, there’s no insecurity of ‘am I doing it right.’ Everything is taken care of, everything is sure to be at a certain level of quality. You’re not afraid of not being cool enough or ‘in the know’ enough. It’s an indulgence, for sure, in more ways than one (our tab for two was close to $200). But quite honestly, if I had to choose where in town to send someone for a splurge, Altura is at the top of my list.