Tacos are objectively a perfect food, but they’re not the stuff of fine dining menus. That’s exactly what you’ll find at Prospect Heights’ new casual Mexican restaurant Alta Calidad, where former Craft and Gramercy Tavern chef Akhtar Nawab is basting ribs with Mexican Coca-Cola, frying up oysters for tacos and tucking pumpkin blossom into his quesadillas.
“Our queso is so good, honestly,” he says. Nawab loves the dish so much, he serves two varieties: the “simple” with acacia honey, pumpkin seeds and chile piquin ($10), and the “complicado” with artichokes, chorizo and poblano peppers ($12). “I don’t know anyone who doesn’t love cheese, but if you love that kind of stuff, it’s a good bowl of melted cheese.”
This is a chef enjoying his career more than ever. He got out of the fine-dining world a few years ago and, looking to learn a whole different way of cooking. He found his calling in Mexican food, spending time in the kitchens of Choza Taqueria and SoHo’s “super casual, super fun” La Esquina. “The complex flavor combinations and ‘less-is-more’ style of cooking in Mexican cuisine has always really resonated with me,” he explains.
That didn’t mean leaving his classical European training behind. The dishes are Mexican, but Nawab has personalized them with French techniques. His signature tamale ($9) is a true crossover dish, blending Chihuahua cheese with smoked potato puree, topped with broccoli asado and bacon and steamed in a banana leaf. Brussels sprouts get the classic Italian agridulce (bittersweet) treatment, roasted “aggressively” and tossed in a mix of tamarind and piloncillo.
“It’s happy, delicious, easygoing kind of stuff; light, rustic, slightly rough-around-the-edges cooking that has those broken-looking pieces but still looks elegant,” he says. “To me, that’s beautiful, like Grandma’s cooking.” (Speaking of grandma, you can bring abuela here, too: There’s plenty of traditional fare, from a broad range of tacos (braised pork cheeks!) to trotter carnitas marinated in condensed milk, citrus and serrano peppers ($16), and family-style dishes ($25-$40) like whole bass and grilled ribeye.
With the restaurant’s liquor license now in place (seasonal cocktails, Mexican and local craft beers), Nawab is enjoying bending the old rules to play with classic dishes. “Part of what I’ve always loved about cooking that I never want to lose sight of again is that you’re always in a learning position, and it’s always going to be fun if that’s the case.”
Alta Calidad is open at 552 Vanderbilt Ave. for lunch, dinner and weekend brunch seven days a week.