Cooking Tips Picked Up at the Chef's Table at Altura
Finally! Got to eat dinner at Altura on Capitol Hill, Seattle mag’s Best New Restaurant of 2012, at last and, oh, man, it lived up to the lofty expectations.
A friend treated me and my main squeeze to this splurge—my dining out budget ain’t what it used to be, back when I was the restaurant critic at the Post-Intelligencer—and I’ll be forever grateful for this wonderful gift. Not only did we enjoy a memorable meal, I picked up a few cooking tips, too.
On a chill weeknight, we had the option of sitting at a two-top or at the chef’s table, which is really a counter that offers an up-close view of the action in the kitchen. The only way you could get closer to chef Nathan Lockwood and his crew is to put on an apron and help out in the dazzling galley kitchen. What a spectacular show! Here are a few pointers I took home:
- Proper prep is everything. My approach to putting food on the table is pretty chaotic and my mise en place is way messy. That’s why I admired the calm order of Altura’s kitchen, where every ingredient was at the ready, organized into drawers with neat containers. Sauces were kept warm on top of the oven and painted on the plates at the last moment before being served. It was inspiring. I’m going to try to cook smarter, not harder.
- Getting fish flakey and succulent, but not dry, can be challenging. I usually sear a fillet and finish it in the oven. But I marveled as the line cooks at Altura tipped a small sauté pan and basted the evening’s featured fish with the oil or clarified butter in the pan. I’m sure there’s a fancy French name for that, but no matter what you call it, that halibut was spot on, the surface lightly golden, the flesh inside moist. I was tempted to holler to the swiftly moving chef: Can you do that again, but slower, so I can sear that technique in my memory bank?
- Less is more. One of the reasons I loved eating at Altura was the way I felt when I left. Light, not heavy. Even though this is a pre-fixe meal plan kind of place—three courses is the minimum—the portions are just right (unless you’re used to dining at the Cheesecake Factory). I know I’m swimming upstream on this issue, but I’m willing to pay more for less, especially when it’s such thoughtful, beautifully prepared, thoroughly inventive fare. (Hello! Rabbit five ways on one plate? Dang, that was some tasty bunny!) If there are six perfect bites of asparagus tortelloni, doesn’t that trump 12 ho-hum mouthfuls of mediocre? We’ll see if this less-is-more approach will fly at the family dinner table.