In 2005, before the word locavore hit the Oxford American Dictionary and Ballard Ave became Seattle’s unofficial progressive dinner, a restaurant called Volterra opened along its northern reach. It was Tuscan: named after the Italian village where owners Michelle Quisenberry, who handled the front of the house, and Don Curtiss, the chef, were married.
The place enshrined an Old World rusticity in a warm and ruddy palette, with food to match. Hearty, autumnal, big on meats and mushrooms and truffle oil—it was dinner you wanted to wrap your face around, particularly this time of year. Dishes on the long menu rarely changed and immediately ignited fan clubs: wild boar tenderloin with gorgonzola sauce, herby seared half chicken with vegetables and mashed potatoes, pork jowl and foraged mushroom pasta, oil soup, crab ravioli, the list went on. Diners developed cravings and those who lived on the Eastside complained to Quisenberry and Curtiss: Why can’t you open a satellite on our side of the expensive bridge?
In September they did, in the storefront of a new downtown Kirkland apartment building with free parking beneath. Forget brand identity; this new Volterra couldn’t look more opposite from its sister. Glassy and contemporary—banquettes and tables on one side of the room, a small bar with Chihuly drawings on the other, open kitchen in back—Kirkland Volterra rang more Milan than Tuscany. Neutral sheers shimmered at the doorway beneath an icy Swarovsky crystal chandelier.
The effect is generically sophisticated and, with all its hard edges, deafening. “Welcome to Volterra!” the hostess shouted as we entered. “We’re so happy to see you!” (Since our visits, they’ve attempted to resolve the noise problem with acoustical panels.) She seated us in the section of a particularly avid waiter, who scurried over from across the room whenever I so much as raised my head. I began to wonder if they knew I was a critic. Over the course of my visits, as I observed waiters treating all their guests with the same level of obsequious enthusiasm, I realized it was the style of the house. (On another visit we shivered in the entry nearly a half hour—the bar was full—waiting for our reserved table. The waiter comped our wine and appetizers, which was a great touch, and delivered an apology so fulsome and overwrought it rang bizarrely self-flagellating.)
We surveyed the long menu to find nearly every one of Ballard’s greatest hits. A couple appetizers—polenta custard oozing fontina and covered with wild mushroom ragù, a flaky crostata pastry lavished with sliced Yukon golds, goat cheese, and smoky tomato vinaigrette—were terrific; still the stuff of midnight cravings. Dungeness crab ravioli, housemade egg pasta stuffed with improbably flavorful mascarpone-crab mixture, was offset brightly with tomato cream. The boar amounted to tender, tender slices poured over with a masterful and subtle Gorgonzola cream sauce, along with rosemary Yukon gold potatoes and—a happy departure, as sides go—pea vines with rods of celeriac.
Portions are enormous.
Volterra knows its meat. Twelve fleshy ounces of New York bistecca arrived grilled and heaped with sauteed leeks, fried prosciutto, and melting Gorgonzola—every bite oozing and peppery. At lunch (an Eastside-only departure for Volterra), chunks of lean Hoffman Ranch flatiron steak pocked a giddy salad of bright romaine hearts, red onion, diced tomato, Gorgonzola, and Castelvetrano olives, in a fine guanciale-shallot vinaigrette—a satisfying romp, and a smart one.
When I was undecided at dinner between two pastas, our waiter helpfully suggested half portions of both, an option not listed on the menu. (All right, so obsequious service has its uses.) Unfortunately the lamb ragù over housemade orechiette was oddly muted in flavor; the pesto pasta with wild Gulf prawns—despite peppercorn pasta and juicy prawns—too bland.
Alas, too much gastronomic uneventfulness was on display for a house of this pedigree and these price tags. Some plates offered a single sustained note where a more nuanced harmony would have served, like the famous haystack of pork jowl pasta with wild mushrooms and truffle butter. That lush trio of ingredients with its housemade tagliolini managed to taste only of truffles—a heady rush, to be sure, but hard to sustain interest to the bottom of the dish. Lamb shank over polenta fell obligingly from its enormous bone, but offered nothing but rosemary to pique a palate that’s seen this preparation so many times before. Even desserts like lemon mascarpone custard and a weirdly espresso-bereft tiramisu wanted depth of interest.
What’s going on? Curtiss no longer cooks at either restaurant; Curtiss was a terrific chef. This may explain the difference between the vivid and compelling cannellini bean soup with nuances of rosemary and a float of fine olive oil I pronounced legend during the early days of Ballard—Volterra’s famous oil soup—and the underseasoned pretender I sampled in Kirkland. Or maybe it’s an Eastside thing. Whether a consequence of a tamer surburban palate, the proliferation of Eastside chains, or table-turning chefs aiming for mainstream popularity—this kitchen has tamed its fullest flavors.
I suspect there’s a better explanation. Maybe our palates have simply evolved. When Volterra opened in Ballard, after all, Seattle hadn’t yet experienced what would turn out to be the biggest paradigm shift restaurants have seen since the midweek-dining revolution: the shift toward chef innovation. What before had been sufficient for a chef—write a relatively unchanging menu, perform it consistently so that diners develop allegiance to favorites, treat those regulars like gold—became a dated recipe, as a restless band of young Turk chefs who favored microseasonality and culinary improv began to change things up every night. In 2005, the fact that Volterra’s food was tasty and consistent and pretty darned Tuscan were enough. Then we met Tilth. We met Joule. We met Sitka and Spruce.
Of course restaurants will always succeed by enticing regulars to crave favorites: Volterra’s wild boar in Gorgonzola alone reminds us that that illustrious gastronomic tradition isn’t going anywhere. It just won’t dazzle the inquiring Seattle palate with quite the same intrigue.