It is not often I speak to the aesthetic merits of a restaurant before examining the food and beverage offerings. Bar Altura is an exception. Like many restaurant owners who are succumbing to the needs of patrons seeking out dining venues to photograph and be photographed in, the newest Queen West restaurant from Ricardo Chico and Marcello Tomarelli (both formerly with Cibo Wine Bar and the current team behind Peruvian restaurant Kay Pacha) is an unapologetically Instagram-friendly space. With the help of Ricardo’s interior designer wife Daniela, they transformed the former tired Italian eatery that was Lo Zingaro into an effortlessly feminine bar and dining room.
“We wanted to give people a space which was not so masculine and intimidating”, Chico tells me. Masculine and intimidating? The powerful establishments with mahogany leather and scotch-lined walls on King Street (including Cibo) come to mind. With more and more independent women living and working in the Financial and Entertainment Districts, who decidedly resent the old boys’ club vibe of other places nearby, this certainly makes sense.
Bar Altura is modern and clean, painted and papered with cool, subdued colours (think: Bobby Berk) throughout the restaurant. Fresh flowers and marble table tops complete the Pinterest appeal. Chico points out that the only “masculine” element he asked for is in the floor-to-ceiling liquor rack, stocked with plenty of Italian wines and plenty of vermouth. With the exception of establishments like the Hello Kitty Café and Barbie Café in Asia that I love so dearly, this is the first time a restaurant owner has admitted to me that they intentionally designed a gendered space. The booths provide ample room for purses and shopping bags, and the high bar Eiffel chairs are functional, yet delicate.
During this particular media event, I sit with my friends Mary and Natalie and casually examine all of the modern Italian dishes presented by Chef Marco Zandona. There’s a spherical Caprese salad, created by dehydrating and rehydrating house-cured tomatoes with olive oil, then stuffing each “tomato sphere” with pecorino and buffalo mozzarella, topped with basil microgreens. There’s a classic Arancini (otherwise known as risotto balls) stuffed with scamorza and topped with confit tomato purée. We even taste some poached lobster, although it’s pretty clear that the sea beast was mostly here for a touch of drama. My favourite antipasti that night was the Sardines; stuffed whole with salsa verde, wrapped in potato strings and deep-fried to perfection.
When the line in front of head bartender Will Publow finally quiets down, I approach to order the bar’s signature purple cocktail, aptly named “Pasquale’s Daughter”; a butterfly pea-infused vodka drink with Cointreau, lemon juice, cucumber, ginger and little Aperol spheres. It is obviously a delight. Another favourite of the evening was the “Palmarola”, made with Beefeater gin, Amaro Nonino, dry sherry, grapefruit oleo, lemon juice and peach bitters. A full selection of primarily Italian wines is available to pair with dinner, and there’s always Peroni on tap if you so desire.
For the soup course, we were presented (and I mean, presented) with a summer gazpacho, or rather, a Zuppetta Fredda ai Frutti di Mare, described as a chilled tomato water with watermelon, radish, cucumber, and “seafood jewels”. Though the over-the-top nature of this dish is deserving of an eye-roll, I lapped up every last drop of the refreshing soup.
Like everything else, the primi section of the menu (pizzas and pastas and other “first courses”) change all the time. We tried the Cavatelli all’Ortolana, a beady pasta served with a light tomato sauce and pecorino and garden vegetable ragu, topped with fior di latte (the fresh peas were fantastic but I could have gone without the raw carrots). The secondi arrived in the form of Chef Zandona’s signature dish, La Porchetta. This slow-roasted pork shoulder was served with chunks of cotechino, puffed pork rind, caponata pepper, cherries, and an apricot and amarena agro dolce– a solid Northern Italian combination (read my post about Cremona, Italy if you’re wondering what I mean).
The dolci (too late in the evening for photography as usual) came in the form of a Camomilla e Fragola, a chamomile and bee pollen semifreddo ring with a deconstructed extra virgin olive oil pound cake. This was served with a strawberry consommé, poured tableside (for that perfect Instagram boomerang).
Final Notes: Bar Altura is a perfect spot for post-work and post-shopping drinks, and the occasional big gathering. To be clear, this place is not trying to achieve a Michelin-Star. “Honestly, we just want people to think of us as a beautiful bar that happens to also serve great food”, says Tomarelli. I could not sum it up better myself.Please note: I was a guest of the restaurant at this event. However, all opinions are my own and I was not monetarily compensated for any content.