You want to eat this. Photo: Melissa Hom
Alta Calidad — a sunny corner dining room in Prospect Heights — is billed as “innovative Mexican,” though that description doesn’t tell the restaurant’s entire story. Instead, it’s best to look at the restaurant’s “roti,” which itself is a bit misnamed. A classic Indian roti is just wheat flour, water, and maybe a dab of oil, rolled paper-thin and cooked quickly over fire until both sides are blistered. The roti that chef Akhtar Nawab serves, though, is significantly more involved: It’s a massive burrata-onion-and-marrow-topped creation that combines Mexican and Indian flavors with techniques pulled from European pastry tradition.
For chef Nawab, who grew up in Kentucky, rotis were a staple of his mother’s home cooking. But when he started cooking professionally in New York, Nawab initially shied away from Indian flavors, choosing instead to work at restaurants like Gramercy Tavern and Craft, under chefs like Tom Colicchio and Marco Canora. Eventually, though, he stepped out on his own, cooking more spice-laden cuisine, first at the now-closed Elettaria, then at the taco-centric La Esquina, and finally at Choza Taqueria, a fast-casual spot where he’s still a partner. But it’s at Alta Calidad, which opened earlier this year, where Nawab puts his Indian background front and center (even though, again, it’s ostensibly a Mexican restaurant). When he decided to make a version of his mom’s roti, he explains, “I wanted to take the roti a few extra steps, to give it more texture, and to make it feel more luxurious.”
It took Nawab 20 tries to perfect his roti dough, which he makes with crema, a staple in Mexican cooking. “It kept disintegrating too quickly because we couldn’t get the proportions correct,” he says. The crema is not a gimmick; Nawab first learned about this type of dough when he worked for chef Loretta Keller, who used a crème-fraîche base to make pastries at the now-shuttered Bisou in San Francisco. “It has not just richness, but tanginess,” he says. “The sour flavor is muddled, but it lingers for a while.” Also, by putting the fat directly into the dough itself, like a focaccia, “when you rip the roti, it’s nice and spongy.”