Save for a brief opening stint at Café de la Esquina, Akhtar Nawab has proved a decidedly Manhattan-centric chef—serving as right-hand man at Tom Colicchio’s restaurants, flitting through the West Village with his debut eatery, Elettaria, and debuting a duo of fast-casual, potentially franchisable concepts, Choza and Indie Fresh. So instead of descending on the borough with a prestige, hotel-anchoring establishment (an increasingly de rigueur entry into Brooklyn, for various Big City elite) it’s refreshing to discover him at Alta Calidad instead, an intimate, low-key cantina in the former Chuko space.
With dishes such as queso fundido “complicado” (cheese dip furnished with artichokes and chorizo), fried shrimp tacos swiped with celery remoulade, and octopus and pork belly skewers dotted with avocado aioli, it marries Nawab’s fine dining finesse with the Mexican flavors he’s come to favor, reconciling superior quality with a less-is-more aesthetic, in regards to food, price point and decor.
We spoke with Nawab about what lured him from tony Madison Avenue to a corner of Prospect Heights, whether he’ll ever plumb his own heritage with an Indian spot, and why—provided he’s not holed up in Alta Calidad’s steamy open kitchen—you’re likely to find him down the street at James.
So what finally wooed you to Brooklyn—especially considering how busy you’ve been building a mini Manhattan empire?
My business partner lives in Brooklyn, so we looked around Williamsburg quite a bit, as well as Gowanus. But ultimately, out of the nine-odd spaces we visited, this is the only one I agreed to, and I did so right on the spot. And I’m happy with the decision, it’s a super supportive neighborhood…everyone’s popped in and introduced themselves. I still live on the Upper West Side though, and I take my daughter to school four days a week, so it’s tough.
You’re Indian—albeit by way of Kentucky—but those flavors have rarely been at the forefront in your cooking. Has that been a conscious choice, to not open a strictly Indian concept?
I want to open something Indian-inspired. I still have a lot in me, as far as that goes. I think it’s an underserved and poorly represented cuisine at this time, although people are slowly improving it. Elettaria was the closest I came to an “Indian” restaurant, and I’ll try again someday. I don’t think it will be that far off, to be honest. And I’m pretty sure my menu wouldn’t have any curry elements to it. I had one saucy item at Elettaria. But it’s just not the right representation for me. I don’t eat that way, I’m very health conscious. So it would be Indian in the way that Alta Calidad is Mexican, i.e., not discernably so. You can’t tell when you walk by. Which is good. This could be a seafood spot for all intents and purposes, with a thoughtfully decorated space.
So what turned you on to, of all things, Mexican food—which you’ve kept coming back to throughout your career?
We opened Elettaria in 2008 and closed in late 2009. It was such a hard time to open a restaurant, and so difficult to keep it going, and I didn’t have the acumen at the time to steer a business through the rough patches and raise more money. We tried as long as we could and it didn’t work out, and since I was invested in every way I took a beating on it. So I needed to take a break, emotionally, personally and financially. I got to hang out with my kid for about 6 months, and as I was trying to figure out what was next, the Mexican stuff presented itself and I jumped on it, because it was so different and so interesting. It was time for me to learn something new. That’s the cool thing about being a cook, you’re always a student, there’s always something new. When you’re running a business you lose sight of that, because you’re so focused on other things. So it planted a seed in me to start learning again, and thinking again, and inspired me to get creative. Because ultimately, I found a lot of similarities between Indian and Mexican food.
What would you say some of those similarities are?
The way you treat ingredients with long cooking times and spices. The “passed down through generations” tradition.
Did you essentially school yourself in Mexican cuisine, or did you seek out guidance from mentors?
Initially yeah, I taught myself. Then I started taking trips to Mexico in order to get a sense of culinary distinctions throughout different parts of the country, such as Oaxaca, Mexico City and along the coast.
The name of this restaurant translates to High Quality. How is that reflected in what you’re doing here?
We’re just trying to do something that’s of high caliber and character. For instance, we have a tamale on the menu wrapped in banana leaf instead of corn husk, because I find that the banana adds an interesting tea-infused flavor. And for the stuffing, instead of the traditional protein or cheese, we make a potato puree with cheese whipped into it, essentially pommes aligot, which is super traditional French. For me, the menu provides a great opportunity to be playful, and to think about how I can make certain Mexican staples different, but still identifiable.
You’ve said Alta Calidad reflects the evolution of your career. Can you expound on that?
It kind of goes back to the tamale. As refined as it is, at the end of the day, it’s still a super rustic dish. While there’s still a good deal of technique on display, there’s a lightheartedness to everything, because honestly, we’re not under as much pressure as I was at Elettaria, where financially, I knew I was going to be demolished if it didn’t work out. I like having the responsibility of making sure everything is correct in the dining room, while having a partner that can deal with all of the numbers and emails.
It’s been said—and increasingly proven—that it’s pretty much impossible to survive on the revenue of a single restaurant nowadays. You built a bit of a cushion for yourself with scalable concepts like Choza and Indie Fresh, before opening a personal, one-off spot. So I’m interested to hear your take on the viability of the neighborhood restaurant.
The fact that Bill Telepan and Anita Lo both had to close down this year is very telling. There’s no doubt it’s gotten increasingly harder. It’s incredibly difficult to pay your bills on one restaurant, especially if you’re living in the city, taking care of a child and have an equal partner. That’s why I really admire places like James down the street, which is an actual mom and pop. We have our meetings over there in order to support them. I don’t know the owners personally or anything, but I feel what they’re trying to do. And it’s vital to the neighborhood that they’re able to keep on doing it.