Aldea: George Mendes Puts Iberia on a Plate
Poemas da Nossa Aldeia
Bello largo da republica
o teu nome e um luarao
foi daqui que naseu
lindo Ferreiros Do Dao
Ferreiros quando nasceu
ja com vontade de trabalhar
fazia umas enxadas
para a terra descravar
Foi baptizado de Ferreirós
e logo coberto de glorias
fez a festa dos mil anos
esta gravado na historia
The above poem written in Portuguese, by Horanho, the grandfather of Chef George Mendes, celebrates the history of the family's village Ferreirós Do Dao in Portugal and is the inspiration behind the name of Chef Mendes' new restaurant in New York, Aldea
. The term translates as small village, which is the feel that Chef Mendes hopes to convey with this restaurant. Chef Mendes has taken culinary traditions from the Iberian Peninsula, especially Portugal and created a personal cuisine meant to convey those traditions and enhance them.
The restaurant is set in an elongated room with a bar in the front and an open kitchen in the rear. It has two levels for dining. The decor is evocative of the coast with light aqua blues and sandy earth tones. The feel is one of relaxation and comfort, as if one might be enjoying a lovely dinner in the Algarve. While Mendes' Portuguese heritage dominates his style, his approach and horizons extend well beyond Portugal's borders and includes Spain and even a bit of France. Neither should be a surprise given his experience in top end kitchens of both countries. It is primarily that experience that he combines with his Portuguese heritage to come up with what, ultimately, is a very refined and personal cuisine.
With the restaurant just set to open to the general public, I had the chance to dine at Aldea, to cleberate a special birthday with members of my family. That I was able to celebrate with my family in a restaurant with such deep familial feelings of its own as evidenced in the poem above, meant a lot to me. That I was able to enjoy such fabulous food, made it even more special.
Our party was welcomed with a lovely fino sherry aperitif and shown to ur table. I had left the menu up to Chef Mendes and he did not dissapoint. The meal opened with his version of the signature dish of one of his mentors, Alain Passard and the Arpege Egg. Chef Mendes' version blended a Knollcrest Farm egg with bacalao, black olive,
and coriander to create a silky, soft, sensual and utterly decadent commencement to the meal.
Chef Mendes' platings , always refined varied from simple to more complex, some with large and beautifully composed color palettes. The next dish, Spring consommé with mushroom ravioli, peas, chorizo, flowers and bulbs was just such a dish. The presentation and colors reminded my wife and I of the beautiful platings of Sanchez Romero at L'Esguard in Catalunya (and soon to be NYC?). This was paired with Sauvignon Blanc, Diogenes, Lake County, CA. 2006.
The next course was suppose to have been Sea urchin "toast" with cauliflower, seaweed and mustard, but some unadventurous eaters in my party were afraid of sea urchin so Chef Mendes sent out that plate to half the party and Shrimp "Alhinho", a Portuguese version of Shrimp in a garlic sauce to the other half. Both dishes were spectacularly delicious. Those who didn't think that they would like the sea urchin, loved it (really, what is not to love?). Ultimately, being able to taste both plates added to the pleasure. The large shrimp were cooked head on. Fortunately, the same unadventurous relatives allowed me to suck out the wonderful juices from their shrimp heads. Outstanding! This was serve with Albarino, D. Pedro De Soutomaior, Rias Baixas, SP 2007.
Razor clams from the planxa always remind me of those I have eaten at Kiosk Universal in Barcelona's Boqueria Market. The Razor clams a la planxa with natural juice and bay leaf powder served by Chef mendes took those to another level. Plated simply, they were perfectly cooked and delicious! The pairing for this course was Chablis, Jacky Renard, Burgundy, FR 2006.
The following dish, Wild striped bass, crab "caldeirada
", tomato and saffron was even more sensational. The bass was perfectly tender and full of flavor with wonderful, crisp skin. The combination of flavors danced on my tastebuds. This worked well with Pinot Noir, Praxis, Monterey, CA 2007.
I have had good fortune with composed beef dishes of late. The skirt steak at Studio Kitchen
was sensational and so was the Wagyu hangar steak with fried quail egg, potato-oxtail terrine, horseradish and bone-marrow marmalade at Aldea. This dish certainly showed why wagyu beef demands a premium. Horseradish can be overpowering, but here it was just right, adding a subtle piquancy, but letting the rest of the flavors of the dish shine through. I brought some 1994 Pesquera Janus, which was paired with this dish. The wine could not have been drinking better, nor could it have matched better with a dish than it did with this one. Wow!
The desserts were as beautiful to eat as they were to look at. The first, Rhubarb broth with tropical fruits and eucalyptus panna cotta was colorful and bright. The second, Chocolate in textures was monochromatic and modern, both displaying a fine aesthetic touch in plating and deft skill in production. As much as I love chocolate, it is rarely innovative or surprising. This example was both – marvelous!
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