My first visit to Aldea was right around its opening this past May. The food was great then. When I returned to NYC this past September, I wanted to see how George Mendes and the restaurant have fared over the ensuing months. This time, though, I sat, with two friends, at the kitchen counter peering directly in to the hive of culinary activity. A hive it was, since in addition to the full downstairs dining room, the restaurant was hosting a party in their upstairs space for GQ Magazine including their star food and restaurant writer, Alan Richman.
For parties of three or fewer with an interest in food and cooking beyond the ordinary, sitting at the kitchen counter is a special treat, adding entertainment in the form of the kitchen ballet to go with outstanding food and wine. The night my friends and I were there, we had the benefit of sitting in front of Jade, a lovely, personable and talented young cook covering the cold apps station. Once our party collected the festivities began.
We started out with cocktails. Mine was a Shiprock with Plymouth Gin, sage, ginger, orange blossom water and lemon. It was refreshing, savory and delicious. My companions appeared satisfied with their cocktails as well.
One member of our party had a distinct leaning towards seafood, so when we asked the kitchen to put together a meal for us, we asked them to feature seafood dishes, with the one exception being the arroz de pato, Chef Mendes' rice and duck dish that has become one of his most popular dishes and one I didn't get to try on my initial visit.
Our first course, quite refreshing for a late summer-early fall NYC evening, was the tomato-cucumber gazpacho with heirloom tomatoes, mozzarella "ravioli" and mussels. This dish is a wonderful example of Mendes' approach to cooking at Aldea. It is a modern take on a classic dish. While maintaining an absolute respect for what makes a gazpacho what it is, Mendes has taken a small liberty by including the mozzarella, not a classic component of gazpacho at all. Not only did he include mozzarella, but he took that a step further by using it as an Adria-esque encapsulation. This was the most obvious use of a contemporary vanguardist technique in our dinner. The good news is that it worked. The even better news is that there wasn't any bad news. Chef Mendes is quite familiar with the gamut of contemporary cooking techniques, having spent time working in Spain under the basque master Martin Berasetagui, but at Aldea he doesn't flaunt it. When used, these techniques are firmly in the service of the food rather than the reverse.
The soup was followed by baby Cuttlefish with caramelized lychee, mentaiko and squid ink. If this were just the grilled cuttlefish, this would have been delicious, but the caramelized lychee provided a balancing note, familiar but still surprising, that put the dish over the top and making it a revelation. The lychee and mentaiko are clearly neither traditional Portuguese nor Spanish ingredients. They come from Asia and their use here reflects both Chef Mendes' creativity as well as the continuing fascination of Iberian and other western chefs with Asian ingredients. Certainly, ingredients like these have been popular throughout Europe and the Americas for some time. It is therefore, no small feat to discover a preparation that uses them and still achieves a revelatory result like this preparation did.
Chef Mendes gave us another homage to Asian cuisine with his magnificent Sea urchin toast with cauliflower cream, sea lettuce and lime. This dish harmonized a variety of textures and flavors in a way that could keep me eating it all day long, if there weren't so many other delights s till to come.
Aldea has already developed a few signature dishes but perhaps the most highly lauded and deservedly so, is the Shrimp Alinha, this time with garlic, coriander, pimentón and pressed jus. The first time I had this dish at Aldea, it was presented more simply and with the head still attached to the body. While I missed being able to suck the juices from the shrimp heads this go round, the overall presentation and dish was somehow even better than the original composition, with additional complexity provided by a few subtle plating elements. Whether this dish continues to evolve, some form of it must always remain on the menu here, as it is truly a timeless classic.
It is truly a pity that cod fisheries are not in better shape than they are. The Iberian peninsula has justly received a reputation for doing wonderful things with this fish. It is no surprise that Mendes does as well. His own sea-salted Chatham cod with market cranberry and fava beans and lemon-basil mussel broth is a tour de force of cod cookery. The fish is flaky, moist and not in the least bit fishy. The flavors are subtle, but superbly accented by the beans and the broth.
The monkfish that came with roasted baby eggplant and tomato-saffron yogurt was also perfectly cooked, flaky, tender, moist and delicious, but the eggplant elements of this dish were the one part of my meal that I was less than thrilled with. I will admit that eggplant is one food that I have had issues with for basically my entire life. While I have actually come to enjoy certain preparations of this vegetable very much, it is still not something that I can grasp without reservation. The textures and flavors of the eggplant in this dish were just such preparations that leave me short. For someone who is an unabashed eggplant aficionado, they were likely heaven. Alas, for me, a small bit of purgatory in this otherwise paradise of a meal.
Arroz de Pato with duck confit, chorizo, olive and duck cracklings is a dish that one would not typically expect to find in a fine dining restaurant, but this one absolutely belongs. It is comforting and intriguing at the same time. This dish is the essence of what makes Aldea a great restaurant. Portuguese cuisine is not really known as a fine dining cuisine. That is not to say that it isn't a delicious cuisine. It most certainly is, but it is a strongly traditional cuisine, perhaps more than any other in western Europe, and tends to lean towards comfort and informality. Aldea, while certainly comfortable and not particularly formal. is, make no mistake, a fine-dining restaurant. Mendes has taken dishes based on tradition, kept them delicious and comforting, but through the use of technique, special ingredients and plating, elevated them into something unique, personal and special. The arroz is a prime example.
While dessert is not the greatest strength of the restaurant, they are still quite good. The strawberry tasting, though nothing extraordinary or revelatory, was refreshing and pleasing. The chevre cheese parfait with poached plums, nectarines and honey ice cream was outstanding though, providing just enough sweetness with cloying and balanced perfectly by the wonderful chevre parfait. This dessert could grace the table of any restaurant in the city. A cheese course with quince paste satisfied as well.
In an age where value counts, Aldea, to my mind, represents one of the very best values in fine dining in the city. It eschews the trappings of luxury dining, but remains comfortable and accessible. It doesn't eliminate the necessities of fine dining, though. The service is attentive and efficient, friendly but not intrusive. The wine list is interesting, representative of its focus region and more than fairly priced. Most of all, though, the food has a tendency to hit the right chords. While the emphasis is not on ultra-luxe ingredients, it does squarely focus on high quality ingredients that may be beyond the reach of all but the most ambitious home cooks. While the cooking is based on tradition, it is also highly personal, refelctive of the chef, George Mendes and not really like that of any other place in NYC or even the US that I am aware of. This is a restaurant, whose continued evolution I am keen to follow.