Seattle Restaurant of the Year 2012: Altura

Platefuls of miracles arise from rustic Italian fare.

By Kathryn Robinson October 29, 2012 Published in the November 2012 issue of Seattle Met

It’s 8pm on a Saturday night, and inside the twinkling little restaurant at 617 Broadway something momentous is happening. An order is being plated.

You know it’s big; why else would four waiters huddle all eager and expectant around the chef as he swirls celery root puree into paisleys on the dish, spooning black rice alongside, carefully positioning a crackling, golden-skinned duck-fat-poached chicken breast and a forcemeat-stuffed thigh on top, then finishing with fennel fronds? On another plate he carefully heaps turnip greens, then nudges into them the meaty end of three glistening lamb rib chops, smoking from the grill. Brow knit in concentration, the chef changes his angle, surveys his work, wipes a blop of errant sauce off the edge. His brow relaxes, the waiters take the plates, and a nearly imperceptible wave of delight flickers across his face. 

Chef Nathan Lockwood wipes the counter and begins again.

The first thing one gets about Altura is its seriousness. Not serious as in solemn: solemnity is the pious affectation that diminishes so many otherwise worthy dining rooms. Solemnity is attitude. It is humorlessness. It is arrogance.

Seriousness is care. Industry. Genuine investment in each diner’s experience: the delight on Lockwood’s face. You see it when you walk through the narrow room to your seat, as waiters and hosts and busers meet your eyes and greet you in authentic welcome. You see it in the big open kitchen, stretching just about the length of the room, where the still focus of the chef and the calm choreography of his team are on view for each of the 11 tables and 11 counter seats. This culinary ballet is the major element of the rustic and elegant room: wood plank tables, wrought iron pendants, spiral stair in the corner, antique angel steadily looking on from the loft. 

You see that seriousness, of course, on your plate: your plate which was accorded all the love—it can only be called love—as the ones described above. As every plate at Altura is. The love is in the diminutive amuse-bouche of corn panna cotta at the height of corn season, served in a porcelain cup with a miniature spoon and speckled with drops of olive oil and blue chive blossoms: a dish of tiny ecstasies, food for woodland fairies. The love is in a lushly marbled piece of raw kampachi, delicately smoky, prettied with oil-puddled ribbons of shunkyo radish and scattered with peppercress and lemon zest. The love is really in Altura’s full-throated pastas: perhaps a shallow bowl of plump cavatelli in an earthy, forever-simmered sugo of duck liver and golden chanterelles and fresh sage; all of it cut small so that every flavor conspires in every forkful. 

Because of Altura’s novel menu concept—you order in three, four, or five courses, mixing and matching starters and pastas and mains however you please—any flexibility you lose in not easily being able to drop in for a plate of pasta you make up for in the joy of being able to order, say, a four-course meal consisting of two pastas and two desserts. 

Not a bad idea at Altura. Particularly if vanilla-rum panna cotta drizzled with black-pepper honey is on the card.

Lockwood honed his craft in San Francisco restaurants, including the Michelin-anointed Acquerello; in Seattle he worked at the exclusive supper club, the Ruins. His greatest gastronomic gift is his radar for unlikely couplings that work, within a seasonally dictated palette of Northwest ingredients—the bold burst of sea urchin brine over veal sweetbreads, the lemony tang of wood sorrel sorbet over a moscato-poached peach. But for all the fuss, all the unapproachables—the octopus, the braised tripe, the grated tuna heart—the plate set before you pulls off the very antithesis of fussy unapproachability. Out of the most sophisticated Northwest ingredients Lockwood wrests rustic Italian preparations with an unlikely preponderance of yum.

So Altura’s food soars about as close to the sun as any in this town: fitting for a restaurant named “height” in Italian. But what truly elevates Altura is that both sides of the enterprise—commonly known as the front and the back of the house—are here, literally and meaningfully, two sides of a whole. Together they make one coherent gift to the diner. 

Watching a kitchen love your dinner into existence would be rare enough. Here, the distinction between the desire to please and the pleasing evaporates. Waiter and chef work as two sides of a single coin—waiters know the food, really know it; chefs, even Lockwood, chat up the counter diners. The result is what Lockwood calls a “gathered-round-the-stove, Thanksgiving dinner” vibe, abetted by a waitstaff as unexpectedly unpretentious as this critic has ever seen. Credit Guy Kugel, the longtime Seattle sommelier. Kugel’s demeanor sets a tone of gastronomic intelligence and kind-eyed humility, fixing Altura as a place where every waiter undoubtedly knows about a thousand times more about food and wine than you do—but wouldn’t dream of acting like it. 

The night is waning and Lockwood looks across at the soon-to-be recipient of a meaty Abruzzese ragù. “Looks like she’s about seven,” he tells his sous chef. “I think this’ll be enough.” He watches his colleague plate the dish, he knits his brow. “Then if she needs more, we’ll just give her more.”

The waiter swoops the dish away, and the untrained eye might miss the expression that flickers for an instant across Lockwood’s face. It’s delight. 

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