Volterra is a hot spot in Ballard and I have been looking forward to dining there for about a year. Recently my husband and I joined one of my clients for dinner there.
The reservation was made about two weeks ago. I had a good long time to look forward to what promised to be a dining experience marked by a "fine-tuned quality." Further, there was another connection I felt with Volterra--fennel salt. The chef is big on a fennel salt, similar and in fact packaged by the same producer that makes a truffeld salt I love.
I invited my client to my home for a bit of a prefunction with the idea that we could walk to Volterra for dinner. We arrived right on time and were greeted in the over-crowded foyer. The hostess had our table waiting and we were escorted to our table promptly...good thing as it was raining outside and there was no place to stand inside.
Although there is seating in the bar we were directed to the main dining room, a medium-sized room with dark brick-red walls, white tile floor and tables both against a banquet and free-standing. Guests and staff must be adroit to navigate the room. Our table was against a banquet and having allowed my client to sit facing the room my ability to see Volterra in action was confined to the table.
Soon our server, in a smart-casual black-on-black uniform, approached our table and asked if she could get us "anything from the bar." This is one of those moments that separate the "boys form the men" so to speak. A confident server might have made a suggestion, enticing me to order a cocktail or glass of wine I had not considered: "Can I get you a Campari and Soda or a glass of Pinot Grigio?" Uninspired we agreed to order wine once we had decided on entrées. She indicated she would send "Don" over to our table.
Next it was time to verbalize the specials. This can not be fun for the servers and I know that because it was not fun for me and my dinner companions. In addition to the diverse and interesting menu, the list of specials was long...and the descriptions of the specials were long...and complicated and in spite of my trained attention span for this sort of thing I got lost pretty fast. I was not alone. All of us at the table agreed..too much!
Don is the wine captain. He was not dressed in staff uniform (or finer...and this is about inspiring confidence in his guidance, not judging his personal syle. When I turn my wine selction over to another I want to feel like I am in the hands of one who knows as well or better than I do...) so when he approached the table I was not sure who he was and felt "diner whiplash." Initially, I literally thought he might be a guest. The room is pretty noisy and I think he introduced himself, but I cannot be sure. With entrées decided it was clear we wanted red wine. My client-and-host settled on a domestic Cab (not on the wine list). Note: the reservation was made under my client's name and he checked us in with the hostess. At least four of the service gaffs to follow could have been avoided if the hostess told our server which person at the table was the Host and what to do about that.
Soon Don returned with two bottles of white wine and poured a glass each for me and my host, verbalizing the producer's name as he poured from over my shoulder. Not long after that appetizers arrived at the table.
My ahi carpaccio (served with a keepsake bottle of olive oil) and our host's salad arrived, but my husband's lentil salad dragged 15 seconds behind (I think one runner brought the first two plates and was followed by another runner with the third). Despite the staggered starts, all the appetizers were delicious.
Meanwhile Don returned with and opened our bottle of red. He offered the taste to the host and then poured wine in my glass. Then, he offered wine to my husband who declined, but did not offer any to our fourth.
As we finished our appetizers clear plates were cleared without much notice that the host had not finished his salad. Admittedly this is a tricky service point, but it is an important one. Had I caught it in time I would have held onto my plate until my client-host was finished so that he was not left eating alone.
Next up were entrées. A runner (or back waiter) arrived with three plates but had no idea who got what. We unscrambled him and I look for my husband's wild boar. It was, again, not among these first plates. Because the dining room was busier at this point the lag time between the first and second plate drop was longer than the first course lag and more awkward. Thirty seconds might not seem like a long time, but it is when you are watching your food get cold as you wait to start eating as a group.
Entrees were delicious and diverse. I enjoyed the venison ragu. Husband loved the wild boar. Client cleaned the plate of a steak entrée (I forget the details but it was not the special Kobe beef) and his partner enjoyed the roasted or grilled chicken. By this time our red wine glasses needed to be refilled and with no one coming to our service I took the bottle and poured.
Mid-way through meal, perhaps prompted by the fact that I was refilling our glasses, the conversation turned to restaurant service and why Seattle struggles with it...this is not a good sign (to me this means the magic spell of dining has been broken by service that has drawn attention to itself by being either neglectful or heavy-handed). As our plates were cleared, again leaving the host eating by himself (surprised again by this I resolved to catch it if we ordered desserts), my clients partner made this observation: "Often I go out to dinner and have a dissatisfying experience, but I cannot quite put my finger on what happened." I tried to outline why this happens to diners over the next several minutes, offering a sad but compelling checklist of events that contribute to that vague dissatisfaction.
We sipped our wine (Don eventually returned to pour more wine, but by then the bottle was empty) until our glasses were empty (oddly the white wine glasses were never taken from the table, even though we had clearly moved on). We each ordered dessert.
Why I was surprised I have no idea, but yet again, my husbands plate dragged out of the kitchen. ARGH! I felt bad for him. The desserts were delicious, although my panna cotta melted into a puddle and lost its shape pretty fast (was the room too warm...did it fail to set up properly). As I scanned the table, noticing that three of us had either finished or pushed our dessert plates away, I was ready. Two bus-boy and a server tried to take my plate and each discovered it to be heavier than they expected as I discretely weighted it down with my fingers. Eventually I just said, "I will wait to have my plate cleared until after my host has finished his dessert." That was all it took. All four plates were cleared together.
The bill was brought to the table (by now I suspect our server knew we had not had a 4-star experience and was feeling a little sheepish) and placed about as far from the host as possible, forcing him to reach across candles and glasses and whatever was left to collect and review it. I did not pay the bill so I cannot be sure if in the final evaluation it was "worth it." That said, the conversation about service struggles in Seattle continued as we walked home so I have to assume my host was not knocked out.
In brief: I measured my expierence against the trusted Philosophy of Three which posits the following:
One service error (failing to offer all the guests wine or, in this case, and check back with the table to refill glasses) is noticeable.
Two service gaffs (dragging my husband's appetizer, entree or, in this case, and dessert behind the rest of the plates) are forgiveable.
Three, (clearing plates before the host is finished eating) you lost me and it's going to take a intervention of some sort to get me back.
The room is cool, the menu is diverse, the prices are reasonable, the wine list is thoughtful, the food is well-prepared (and if you love fennel salt, are you in luck!)...
But there are service issues....
This is not a huge deal and certainly no reason for anyone to go on the defensive. I took the time to write and post this review to help other diners manage their expectations of their experience while Volterra works out the kinks.