ALTA Nordic Kitchen: Where Cooking Is A Family MatterOctober 31, 2017
How do you keep your family’s Swedish cooking traditions alive?
Find the perfect venue for your dad, an acclaimed chef, to open his newest restaurant and claim a spot in his kitchen.
That’s what Ian Larsson did when he convinced his father Christer to open his newest restaurant, ALTA Nordic Kitchen, earlier this year.
The father had only one rule for his son: easy access from his home, because he refused to give up precious time stuck in notorious Los Angeles traffic. As it turns out, Ian found a site only two minutes from Christer’s home, along a more less-swanky, more-funky stretch of Melrose Avenue.
“We’ve all heard of French bistros, so now we have a Scandinavian bistro that features dishes every Swede knows about,” Christer Larsson said. “People still like comfort food. I could do things more creative. But if you say Scandinavian restaurant, I want to stay as authentic as possible.”
After all, Larsson earned his reputation in America as the opening chef for perhaps the country’s most famous Swedish restaurant, Aquavit. In running the kitchen for the restaurant’s first six years starting in 1987, he helped bring a touch of Scandinavia to both New York and the States.
Afterward, he steered two of his own restaurants, Christer’s in Manhattan and Alta in Connecticut.
Before opening the Melrose Avenue restaurant, he worked with a hotel group and spent a lot of time on the road as he developed food-and-beverage concepts, returning to his roots when he first came to America in 1980 and worked at hotel restaurants in Atlanta, Los Angeles, Hilton Head, S.C., and Greenwich, Conn.
Although hotel restaurant and menu design still required him to cook, ALTA puts him directly in charge of his own kitchen again.
At the heart of his cooking is the best ingredients he can find, starting with salmon, a starring role in virtually every menu he has crafted. As expected, a recipe for gravlax – which he notes is translated as “salmon from the grave” because the earliest Vikings would bury the summer’s catch to eat in the winter – offers different flavor profiles depending on the source of the raw fish. Unlike farmed Coho salmon, wild salmon in season, he explained, must go further to find food, with that extra activity producing a different, more-desired texture.
“That’s just one example of how one ingredient can make a major difference,” said Larsson, noting that he can find salmon on both coasts, but won’t select, say, an Hawaiian fish that can’t be found back in Scandinavian waters. “You do the most you can with what you have. Creativity can only take you so far.”
Originally from Vetlanda, a historic community in Sweden’s southern Småland region, Larsson discovered his comfort behind the range at an early age, taking on his first kitchen apprenticeships in high school. That on-the-job training instilled dedication and refined chef skills, which he brought to fine-dining destinations such as Aquavit.
Cooking in multi-starred venues came with pressures when diners were spending $75 on a dish – “They want to see something they’d never seen before,” Larsson said, not to mention pre-starters and amuse-bouche, often complex tastings that hint at what’s to come. “It’s a totally different ballgame, you need a full kitchen staff.”
Today he’s serving comfort food, mostly based on his Swedish upbringing but with other Nordic flavors. Many dishes are cooked on ALTA’s wood-burning grill.
His goal is to offer everyday dishes with everyday prices, with local residents finding the restaurant as a home away from home. But these dishes have a refinement not often found in a local bistro, because they are based on the elevated versions he first served at Aquavit; indeed, several selections recall recommendations from a two-star New York Times review of Christer’s in 1994.
Take the meatballs, for example, listed on the menu as fricadelles. Larsson’s version, made with ground veal and not pork, are egg-shaped and Danish-style. He serves them with gravy and lingonberries.
Of the fiskgryta, a seafood stew inspired by flavors of Provence, drawing on his experience in European travels and kitchens. Larsson blends seafood and shellfish with fennels and saffron. Even coming off the hottest months of the year, the stew, which is listed as a casserole, has been selling briskly.
“[Diners] like flavorful and filling dishes,” Larsson said. “Not all Californians just eat salad. People like satisfying dishes.”
More important, as he reviews the menu he created with his son, “These are dishes I would cook at home.”
Many people falsely think that high-end chefs mirror that style in their personal kitchens, but Larsson said it’s more likely to use simpler ingredients than, say, pristine scallops. His go-to dish is Mary’s free-range chicken, sourced from a family business that started in 1954, brined and then cooked over a wood-burning grill.
“The flavor of the chicken is fantastic,” he said. “That chicken? I could eat it every day of the week.”
That Mary’s chicken dish – which changed the mind of one Yelp reviewer who came in thinking Scandinavian food sparkled only with fish – is on the menu at ALTA.
Since Larsson first stepped into a restaurant kitchen, social media has reinvented the dining experience, with every individual who posts any comments – today’s modern reviews – considering himself or herself as a food critic. However, he’s delighted by common themes he finds among posts, particularly as Yelp reviews credit ALTA for producing dishes that are “clean, fresh and light.”
Meanwhile, Larsson continues to train his son in the kitchen, much as he learned the trade and mastered the fundamentals on the line.
“I’m one of those guys who likes perfection,” he said. “Ian is that way. He works hard at what he does. He puts a lot of effort into the plates he puts out.”
And, Larsson added, spending time at ALTA with his son is keeping him young.
“I like to have him in the kitchen. What dad wouldn’t?”