Altura’s Heavenly Italian Restaurant on Capitol Hill

By Kathryn Robinson January 25, 2012 Published in the February 2012 issue of Seattle Met

Altura in Italian means both “height” and profound “depth.” That’s what it means in Seattle now, too.

With a smile both modest and assured, the Finest Waiter in Town set before me a plate of beautiful Muscovy duck. Slow-roasted, its pinked slices fanned atop brilliant red cabbage, the duck was love song–tender and matched with chemical precision to the crumbled amaretti, fried sage leaves, slices of caramel-roasted turnip, and wintry scattering of pomegranate seeds. “This is…perfect,” I breathed, noting how the sweetness oozing from the turnip transformed the duck meat into a better version of itself. “This is perfect,” murmured a tablemate, forking into a crunchy mound of four-chicory salad with its lush dressing and revelry of apple, hazelnuts, and Gorgonzola chunks.

A diner who ordered the parsnip gnocchi with fried parsley in brown butter and wild boar ragù simply ate, speechless, glaring whenever I snuck in my spoon for more of the gently gamey sauce. “Heaven,” he pronounced at last, pushing back his clean plate. I looked up to see an angel hovering over his head.

This astonishing new restaurant on north Broadway is not where good people go when they die. Instead, the seasoned young chef and management team of Nathan and Rebecca Lockwood has given us one better: a place we go to live. Lockwood was chef at Seattle’s private dining club the Ruins before this; before that he cooked at two of San Francisco’s best restaurants, Fleur de Lys and Acquerello, earning a Michelin star for the latter.

From this impressive resume Lockwood picked up a clue or 10 about Italian food; more on that in a minute. He also absorbed an aesthetic, at least from the rococo decadence of the Ruins. Over the dining room fitted with tapestries and wrought iron and Brazilian cherry hardwood tables laid with gilded runners he suspended a towering French antique angel. Altura isn’t a large room—it’s narrow and long, with just nine tables and a row of counter seats—but it’s a generous one, lit dimly and energized by an open kitchen where a team of culinary pros makes magic happen.

And did I mention this place is the star of the package?

There they work, industriously scoring potatoes and searing fish and pounding pomegranates for seeds, then bestowing their plated labors upon those blessed with front-row seats at the counter. Something about the spirit of service here feels like…well, it feels like love. Say what you will about that big-ass angel; something’s casting a benediction over this house.

Because, oh…the food. Lockwood interprets Italian through a Northwest seasonal lens, eschewing any particular region in favor of a general tendency to push Italian rusticity through a sieve of elegance. So an earthy cauliflower puree offers its caramelized brassicas, its speckles of Calabrian chili oil—but it’s delicate as fine silk. The long strands of the housemade bucatini strands go deep and textural with crackly bits of fried parsley and garlic—then soar with grated tuna heart. One of Lockwood’s signature dishes is scallops, subtly enhanced with nutty fennel pollen and parsnip puree, then amped up a notch with smoky grilled radicchio and fennel.

Talk about heights and profound depths. Plates are often fancy and modern, but never at the expense of real. In one starter, a hunk of grilled kampachi arrived with blood oranges and olives alongside a shot glass of blood orange–parsley puree. What looked precious ate satisfying and earthbound.

Correction: That kampachi wasn’t technically a starter, any more than the Wagyu steak with mushrooms is a main. At Altura, one orders three courses for $49, four for $59, or five for $69; these courses can be mixed and matched off what more traditional houses would call the appetizer, pasta, and mains lists. Go ahead and order five mains as your dinner; Chef Lockwood will apportion accordingly. (One wonders if they’d let a person try this with dessert, splitting across a table one $59 order of all four? I’ve now sampled them all and, honestly, it might be a deal just for the salted chocolate truffle cake and the rummy vanilla semifreddo served in a puddle of almond-strewn huckleberry sauce…)

The thing is, if you’re only hungry for a starter and a main, you have to order a la carte—an option Lockwood insists the house fully endorses, but in practice seems to discourage. The fact that the menu lists no individual prices was our first clue; our host’s puzzled hesitation at providing them the second. (She appeared to make them up on the spot.)

A few other imperfections may be functions of Lockwood’s frequent menu changes. A composition involving crisped sweetbreads and delicately fried mushrooms was overcome by the briny “tongue” of sea urchin on top. (No, sea urchins don’t have tongues; it just sounds nicer than gonads, which for sea urchins resemble tongues. Aren’t you glad you asked?) Chiogga squash ravioli was lavished with so much amaretti it tasted like an almond croissant. Pancetta-wrapped sturgeon was glorious over kabocha squash but for one little problem: The pancetta offered zero flavor. Such flaws melted into otherwise flawless evenings without diminishing our appraisal.

A final word about the Finest Waiter in Town. At once warm and professional, intelligent and modest, he made us feel like treasured guests from his sincere welcome with a gratis herbal aperitif to his smiling farewell. As did every waiter we had at Altura. Maybe Lockwood’s club experience gives him this pitch-perfect intuition for instilling in guests a sense of belonging—but it’s the crowning note of transcendence in one hell of a heavenly restaurant.

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