It seems to me that all happiness arrives as a surprise. Work as we might to make things happen — exactly the way we conceive they should be — everything great happens by stumbling on it.
Last evening, my dear friend Meri and I stumbled on a spectacular restaurant, all because the Indian restaurant we thought we wanted to visit was too full. As we wandered in the cold— fresh from a long walk around Greenlake in the blustery wind — searching for somewhere to eat in suddenly trendy Ballard on a Saturday night, I remembered a piece I had read in a newspaper this summer. “Hey, I think there’s a new Italian restaurant down this street. I seem to remember something about the couple who run it once living in Tuscany. Wanna try it?”
Meri — my marvelous friend — always seems happy to explore with me. Life is an adventure with her. We never know where we’re going to end up, but we know we’ll be there laughing.
Last night, we ended up in a place we had never been, beautifully fed, wonderfully warm, and perfectly happy.
Last night was the first Saturday night I had been out of the house in far too long. All through the winter, I’ve been working. Hard. Not just at my job, on my writing, in the house — but I’ve also been working to keep my equanimity. The rains came down hard this year, and I’ve had the blues. I went into hibernation mode, somehow. This project I’ve been working on required all my attention, so I told my friends I’d have to be away for awhile, hunched in front of the computer. I’d come home from a full day of teaching, make myself some food, then sit in the corner, typing, listening to the rain on the skylights, and going to bed too late. I enjoyed it — writing makes me feel alive in a way nothing else can — but I had to shut out the rest of my life too much for my own taste. Everything geared toward the future, not enough for the moment. I know better, but apparently, I don’t. I wouldn’t recommend the regimen I’ve been on: no enough sleep; no real exercise; not seeing friends often enough; working all the time; pounding rain on my head; ten days of having the flu, in the end. Whew.
Deprivation can create satisfaction, however — the world looked bright and alive. After seeming months of rain, a crazy windstorm blew away the clouds, and suddenly everything seemed clear. We had a plethora of choices before us. So when Meri and I walked in the door at Volterra, we were already feeling fine. As soon as we saw the warm interior of the restaurant, and the tiny table for two open by the window, we knew we were in for something good.
A few days ago, I asked some of my writing students to describe their favorite meals of all time. There were tales of pesto lasagna in the Cinquaterra on the edge of the Mediterranean, spoonfuls of homemade hummus in a cafeteria in Israel, and sub sandwiches at the top of a mountain after five hours of hiking. We all agreed that those meals would never have tasted as good in a different setting. (That’s a foodie’s way for me to teach the importance of setting to students writing fiction, eh?) Well, last night, I looked around at the warm red walls, the chocolate brown tables, the white candlelight dotting the room — and I felt immediately warmed. I smelled garlic, prosciutto, chestnuts, and cappuccinos — and I was hungry. I sensed the happy bustle in the capacious back room, the well-dressed people crowding the bar, the murmuring noise level of a group of people satisfied and smiling — and I knew just how lucky we were to walk in and immediately sit down at a window table.
All right, Shauna, I can hear you saying now. Enough with the setting; get to the action. What about the food?
Ah, the food.
We ate well. To start, a warm prawn and roasted fennel salad: enormous prawns sauteed in garlic; slivers of fennel; lamb’s ear lettuce; mandarin slices; a light champagne vinaigrette; spicy green olives with an unusual bite. Meri ordered a warm lentil and pork jowl salad. Never in my life did I think I could write this sentence honestly: I just love pork jowl. Before you protest, imagine this: thin, crackling slices of the essence of bacon taste, crunching among tiny brown lentils, along with small shreds of radicchio and arugula. Ah, the taste of it. Meri and I both just kept looking at each other, smiling and amazed, then diving our forks back into the pile of lentils before us.
In between dishes, we sipped on our wine. The wine list featured wines from all over Tuscany — including the “Supertuscans” — with some far out of my price range. The one we ordered was, admittedly, the cheapest one on the list. However, I certainly didn’t feel deprived. We drank a spicy, full-bodied blend of Washington-grown Shiraz, Cabernet, and Merlot, blended specficially for this restaurant. If you don’t know about the power of Eastern Washington wines, you should try some. I don’t have the knowledge or vocabulary to talk about wine well; I just know what I like. And this wine, I liked. Enormous personality, full in the mouth, and it simply deepened with every new dish. Or, as Meri said, about twenty times throughout the night, “Oh my god, the wine.”
And then, the entrees. By the time they arrived, Meri and I were already in ecstasies, but we simply weren’t prepared. She had the wild boar tenderloin with a gorgonzola sauce and sauteed rapini. Apparently, it was tender and not-at-all gamey. Judging from her little moans and sudden inability to listen to anything I had to say, I’m guessing it was ineffably good. However, I didn’t do that much talking, because my prawn and porcini risotto, with cream and lobster sauce, made me incapable of speaking. Oh lord — this was good. Every bite indelible, every spoonful a pleasure, every taste a measure of just how good food can be.
You may have noticed this: I don’t write about restaurants often on this site. For one, I don’t eat in restaurants that often, since I had to learn how to live gluten-free. Eating in restaurants is always a risky endeavor, and most of the time, I’m not willing to take the risk. Sometimes, I eat in places where I know I’m going to be safe: my favorite Indian restaurant; sushi when I bring my own bottle of wheat-free tamari; salads with friends for lunch. Nothing much to write about there, though. I want to only recommend a restaurant to those of you reading here if I feel like it’s spectacular.
Volterra is spectacular, not only for the fresh, creative food — an exquisite blending of the best of Tuscany and the Pacific Northwest — but also for the way they treated me when I told them I cannot eat gluten. Our wonderfully flamboyant waiter (Paul from Seville) understood me immediately when I explained my plight. He already knew about celiac disease, but he still went back three times to the kitchen to insure that flour didn’t lurk somewhere in places that neither one of us expected it. Later, he brought over one of the owners, the wonderfully voluble Michelle, who chatted with me about gluten-free food. She truly impressed me with how much she already knew. Later, Paul informed me that the chef wanted me to know that they keep Tinkyada pasta in the kitchen, in case any gluten-free customer wants to try one of the incredible pasta dishes. That’s a good restaurant — trying to keep every customer satisfied and safe.
Long before the desserts arrived, Meri and I talked about returning. But after the desserts, I knew I had found a new home. Ah, the desserts. I ate chestnut honey panna cotta, made with my favorite honey from Tuscany. Smooth and creamy, sweet without being overly sweet, the panna cotta was a little gift on my white plate. Slivered strawberries strewn around the top made it even more extraordinary. Fresh strawberries in February? This month is beginning well. Meri closed her eyes after she had spooned up some of her white pistachio gelato, and after a taste of the chocolate, she pushed the bowl toward me so I could have a taste. But when she dug into her scoop of peach champgne sorbet, she simply looked out the window, tears in her eyes. There were no words necessary.
The evening was simply perfect. We hadn’t expected this goodness at all.
5411 Ballard Ave Northwest
Seattle Washington 98107