In America, Italian restaurants that want to charge lots of money are confronted with a quandary: you can’t charge big bucks for baked ziti, but you ALSO can’t use too many classical French techniques because then you cross the culinary equivalent of the Alps.
So what do you do? You have two choices: either strip the recipes WAY down, like to three ingredients, but make sure that those three ingredients are the MOTHERFUCKING BEST GODDAMNED INGREDIENTS IN THE UNIVERSE. For instance, slather some delicate pristine handmade pasta with some fancy butter, such as reggiano butter, or some other kind of exotic butter made from the milk of cows that are fed only apples or some shit like that, and then top this with an obscure D.O.C Pecorino made by rustic badasses, or monks, or even better yet: Shaolin monks, which are in fact both. This is the strategy of places like Cantinetta and Spinasse. Or you can try a different approach and put a whole bunch of stuff on the plate and hope for the best. This is Altura’s approach.
I’d been trying to get into Altura for a while. Unfortunately, the only reservation options, for WEEKS, were either 5:30 or 9:45. I place the entire blame on Open Table. As recently as seven years ago I used to place reservations with impunity in this town, gleefully calling up every restaurant in town and scoring valuable tables for two at 7:30 on a Saturday.
Now, sadly, modern technology has enabled any common Aspberger’s sufferer, in a town, mind you, which is JAM FUCKING PACKED with awkward computer programmers loathe to communicate with AN ACTUAL PERSON, to cock-block people like me who are TRYING TO WORK HERE, YOU FUCKING NERDS. The horrors of technology, I suppose.
Anyway: Altura. Suffice to say we eventually did get a reservation. They’ve got an interesting pricing structure. The menu is divided, as Italian menus frequently are, into antipasti, primi, and secondi, though they aren’t labeled as such. While you can order anything a la carte, you’re better off taking advantage of a coursed meal, which is offered at Altura at a rate of $53 for 3 courses, $61 for 4 courses, $69 for 5 courses, or $132 for one metric shit-ton of courses. This sounds complicated, but don’t worry; your waiter will laboriously explain all of this to you.
We started with the Spicy Grilled Baby Octopus. Grilled tentacles were present, of course, along with lots of cucumbers: there were thin rounds of lemon cucumber, cubed English cucumber, and round balls of some other kind of cucumber. Accompanying all these cumcumbers and tentacle was what I initially thought was some variety of hummus but was, according to the menu “calabrian bean puree.” There was also a smear of basil puree and an asymmetrical splash of bright orange chili oil, which I assume was leaking from a small, red, grilled pepper.
This dish had a good amount of heat, as befits the name, but seemed unfocused. There were too many disparate elements. I get that you’re supposed to get a bite of everything together, but with SO MANY different ingredients, how much shit can you hold on your fork? At some point it turns into culinary Pick-Up Stix.
Cavatelli was a pretty disorganized plate: a compact pile of perforated pasta cylinders were clad in a thick sauce of ground duck. This was topped with a translucent jade bundle of deep fried sage leaves. It was a lot of sage, actually: it looked like a tiny green chandelier fell from the ceiling and landed onto my bowl of pasta. The cavatelli was very ducky tasting. It was like an aggro mallard suffering from roid rage teabagged the cavatelli with his cloaca. That’s not a bad thing.
Malfatti was SUPER FUCKING TASTY. Malfatti is like sloppy gnocchi: big, round, sloppy balls which are exactly what your mom craves. Three big fluffy green balls, flecked with kale and dandelion greens and bound together with ricotta, were piled atop a savory ragu of ground rabbit. The deliciousness was inexplicable. Normally I would think a pasta made primarily of ricotta and kale would be the kind of thing folk musicians would want to eat. Yet these delicious savory balls were somehow imbued with the spirit of True Tastiness, a Dickensian apparition which was not just an omen of my own terrifying pigheadishness, but also a symbol of delicious possibilities. Kudos. And when I say “kudos,” I actually mean “K-K-K-KU-dos!!!” sung to the tune of the Chia Pet theme song.
Snake River Farms Flatiron Steak was competently prepared; grilled until the caramelized brown crust enshrouded a lurid clown-nose rare interior, the steak was then sliced into medallions. These were strewn about a plate containing shitloads of other stuff. Seriously, that steak was the Fred Sanford to the junkyard of garnish, though my indelicate metaphor doesn’t do justice to how good the garnishes were.
There was grilled Treviso radicchio, which managed to be palatable because it was wrapped in pancetta. There was also a grilled green onion. Lurking off to the side, in much the same manner as your mom at a peep show, was a puree of parsley root with black truffle jus. I’d never eaten parsley root before, but you don’t need to be Jules Verne to have an imagination fertile enough to predict that parsley root, like ANY edible root, pairs as tightly with truffles as Dave Murray pairs with Adrian Smith. Truffles and root veggie puree: a culinary twin guitar solo.
Acorn finished Iberico Pork was a special treat. Medallions of grilled Iberian pork, finally available in the USA after the FDA realized that Spanish pigs aren’t the threat to democracy we initially thought. This pork was seared medium: the rose color, with a blush of blood even (!) made me feel-- let’s just say-- less than comfortable, though it was so delicious I couldn’t help but eat the fuck out of these forbidden undercooked pig pieces: it was, for me, the culinary equivalent of the stiffy I got watching Usain Bolt.
This homoerotic pork was cut, I was told, from a specific section of the pig shoulder, analogous to the aforementioned flat iron steak, I would imagine, and served atop a chewy and nutty bed of faro, along with figs 2 ways: a grilled fig half and a gorgonzola stuffed fig, wrapped in pancetta. Don’t know why you’d include the plain grilled fig alongside the fig stuffed with gorgonzola and wrapped in pancetta: “Hey, let’s put something NOT as good next to something similar, but more awesome!”
Dessert was a chocolate truffle cake. This was so chocolatey it caused a chocoquake in my mouth when I bit into it! The strata of dense chocolate, alternating with moist chocolate cake, were tectonic with coca flavor. We are witnessing an evolution in chocolate desserts: Restaurant Zoe serves mystical cocoa scrying orbs. Café Juanita serves a truffle cake, which is as light and airy as an angel’s tits. Now Altura, which manages to put out the kind of Platonically ideal chocolate cake, the kind of cake I kept wishing for every birthday when I was a kid, yet never got. A chunk of this cake was served with some fancy fucking garnishes: there was an almond-filled cherry, the pit replaced with an amaretto cream, and a sliver of candied orange subbed in for the stem. There was the de rigeur smear of something, in this case cherry sauce. There was also a cube of pistachio brittle.
Apple huckleberry crostata had a misleading name. This was mostly my fault I guess: I thought the crostata would be innovative presentation of apples and berries on a slab of toasted bread. But that’s because I confused crostata and crostini. Crostata, it turns out, is a cobbler with a master’s degree from a liberal arts college. This was topped with a quenelle of a pine nut praline gelato. Delicious praline flavors were all there: creamy, nutty, and caramel. Unfortunately, I’m tired of ice cream being presented as a quenelle. Can’t they shape it into an eyeball shape? Or a skull? Or a dick? That might spice things up.
Altura is one of those restaurants that’s so pristine, you can’t really find fault with it. The pricing structure is liberal like Dennis Kucinich. The techniques on display are masterful. If there’s any fault to be found, it’s in the overcrowded plates with too many competing flavors. Some of the presentations, specifically the octopus salad and the flatiron steak, looked like a Chinese subway station. The place also seems rather soulless, but then again so am I, so I wouldn’t really count that as a disadvantage. Toodle-oo!
Rating: 8.5 Chinese subways out of 10
Altura is located at 617 Broadway Ave E
For reservations call 206-402-6749