A visit to the ineffable Altura raises bigger questions about what it means to be both a lover of food and community and a successful chef.
The way it came about was this: An out of town friend called to ask a favor of me, which I gratefully performed; and he in gratitude returned the favor by sending me a gift certificate to dine at what is currently deemed Seattle's hottest — and reputedly most expensive— new restaurant: exactly the kind of place I never, ever go. (How impulsive a slug of free money can make even the most hidebound.)
I can't say that in retrospect I regret my decision: New knowledge is always good, even when it's purchased at a price. But along with some precious culinary memories and a gaping hole in my entertainment budget, my visit with friends to Altura, Nathan Lockwood's five-month-old artisanal-Italian restaurant on Capitol Hill, left me with a powerful sense of melancholy. How sad when the highest aspiration can lead an artist into an expressive dead end, into self-contradiction.
For Lockwood is unquestionably an artist. Not just in the presentation of his dishes — each a little ready-for-its-closeup culinary composition — but in the eye-appeal of each individual hand-crafted ingredient. Not even the unrelenting, uninterruptible descriptive babble of our server could blur the impact of their beauty — though it did allow them to get cold before our admiring eyes.
And when we were at last allowed to taste them undistracted, their mouth-feel proved as exquisite as their appearance. I will never forget Lockwood's version of a simple plate of housemade tagliatelle, dainty as tissue, topped with a dark, savory ragù of oxtail and tripe. It was, simultaneously, a flavor-texture synthesis of symphonic dimension and a Proustian madeleine, conjuring an illusory but vivid “memory” of mamma ladling the rich stew over vast plates of just-made noodles for the menfolk's dinner after a long sweaty day in the fields.
And (as quickly as a madeleine), in three bites it was gone. The psychic discord was almost physically wrenching. The taste: hearty, fragrant, appetite-stimulating; the portion: dainty-teacup-saucer in diameter, and less than that dainty-teacup-filling in size. The flavor grand and broad as a Sicilian landscape; the serving exquisite and puny as an ivory cameo. One whiff of sensory heaven and gone.
The whole meal was like that: whiff, wow, and basta; then, after a considerable wait, another whiff, again accompanied by interminable unasked-for information about the provenance of the ingredients and the intricacy of the preparation. Is this eating? Is it even dining? No, it's not; at best it's delectation, an utterly self-conscious ritual performance, with the food involved reduced to mere pretext. And it appears to be a wholly successful formula with the dining-out public.
How has this sad collision of sensory and cerebral values come to be considered not just an aspect but the norm of the high-end restaurant experience? When did the presentation of a dish and the tableware and the napery surrounding it become as important in a recipe illustration as the recipe itself, as meticulously credited as the accessories in a fashion shoot? Most crucially: Does a serious chef who is also ambitious have to sacrifice his or her deepest culinary values, his love of and respect for the deep authenticities of food as a public and communal sacrament, to the prissy, constipated conventions of haute cuisine?
I have no idea; and taking a final tab of nearly $400 for three as representative, I will have precious little occasion to garner more experience in seeking an answer. Not that I regret my Altura experience. On the contrary, it has inspired me to get out the pasta machine, purchase some tripe and oxtails, and start thinking about which wine's most likely to help me achieve a meaty madeleine of my own: one I can devour to my sweaty contadino heart's content.