Aldea is a special restaurant to me in so many ways. I love George Mendes' cooking. I love George Mendes – in addition to being a superb chef, he is just a really great guy. I love the space. I love Heather Laiskonis. I love the coziness and ambiance of the restaurant. Frankly, I just love everything about the restaurant. I even love Aldea when it is being something that is not quite Aldea, such as when they bring in guest chefs for special dinners. Unfortunately, I was unable to make the dinners with Charleston S.C. chefs Mike Lata and Sean Brock, but I was lucky enough to make the incredible Sam Mason retrospective as well as the most recent special dinner, "Pastry Chefs Cook Savory" featuring four of New York's (and the world's) finest pastry chefs, the kicker being that they would not be doing what they are most well known for, but instead would be switching roles and cooking savory. The roster included Alex Stupak of WD-50, Johnny Iuzzini of Jean-Georges, Brooks Headley of Del Posto and Michael Laiskonis of Le Bernardin. To complete the reversal, George Mendes would do the dessert. As an added attraction, Johnny Iuzzini would be doing cocktails along with Jamie Gordon of Pernod Richard. Wines were supplied by Nate Archibald of Bayfield, while George and the Aldea staff also supplied the canapes to start the evening.
Ah, the canapes, they would have been a satisfying meal in and of themselves. As much as I wanted to gorge on them, I restrained myself from eating too many juicy Kusshi oysters on the half-shell with pickled ramp vinaigrette, foie gras with figs on toast, beet meringues, gougeres,and spoons of Anson Mills polenta with truffles, all washed down with plenty of Duval Leroy Brut NV Champagne.
One of the conceits of the evening was that the chefs cooking the savory courses would each do a plate inspired by the food of Aldea. Leading off was WD-50's Alex Stupak. Known as a brilliant, creative pastry chef, who enjoys incorporating savory elements in his cutting edge desserts, Chef Stupak started his career as a savory chef before becoming the first pastry chef at Boston's Clio. He was also the pastry chef at Alinea for the first two years of that restaurant's existence before moving on to WD-50 in New York. One of my favorite dishes at Aldea is the "Sea Urchin Toast, cauliflower cream, sea lettuce, lime." Chef Stupak used that as the inspiration for his dish. Titled "Sea Urchin, Mustard & Cauliflower," the dish consisted of beautiful Santa Barbara sea urchin on a bed of toasted bread crumbs, cauliflower streusel, mustard, whipped wasabi and sea urchin ice cream. The streusel and bread crumbs added the requisite textural contrast to the creaminess of the rest of the dish. The flavors of the wasabi, mustard and urchin blended together perfectly to provide a marvelous sensation of hot and cold flavors in the same bite. While incorporating the ice cream into the dish may have been "cheating" on Stupak's part, it was the kind of cheating that can only be welcomed. Besides, it's not as if full-time savory chefs haven't been using ice cream in savory dishes for some time now. Pulling a page from Ricky Henderson, the greatest lead-off hitter of all-time, Stupak started fast and hit a home run.
It was at this point of the dinner that I discovered that the diner sitting directly to my left, was someone who I had wanted to meet and break bread with since the halcyon days of eGullet, none other than the esteemed "Sneakeater." It is a small world! With my guest, the ever affable Joe Bavuso, sitting across the table and the lovely, Troy born, Lee Ann Wong to my right and Sneakeater's and Lee Ann's dining companions, we would be in for an evening as enjoyable socially as it would be delicious!
Johnny Iuzzini, pulling double duty as mixologist and savory chef, put up a dish that would have been equally at home as an outstanding breakfast as it was at this dinner. Paired with a 2007 Meursault 1er Genevrieres from Latour Giraud, the "Poached Egg & Smoked Bacon Biscuit, peas, lardons, chanterelle mushroom" was a riff on Mendes' "Slow-Poached Egg, Sweet Peas, Smoked Bacon green garlic broth, truffle." Missing in my photo, but not the plate from which I ate, the chanterelle ice cream was lovely, subtly capturing the essence of the noble fungus and proving along with the chanterelles on the plate a worthy substitute for the truffle of Mendes' original dish. The egg, cooked at 65º was delicious on top of the bacony biscuit. I was surprised that Iuzzini chose that temperature to cook the egg, leaving a firmer yolk, but it worked never-the-less. The peas were done two ways, as a foam and also as frozen and shattered. Together with the chanterelles, they added a wonderful, earthy element to the dish.
Brooks Headley was the only chef that evening whose work I had not previously tried in any form. I have never formally dined at Del Posto, but after his incredible savory dish, I have to make a point to experience his desserts and the rest of the food there! Goat has been a popular meat at Aldea, though it is not a mainstay of the restaurant. Headley's interpretation was "Baby Goat Agnolotti, sweet carrot and spicy paprika." Perfectly paired with a rapturous 2006 Barbaresco from Nada, the agnolotti, filled with slow cooked kid, sang and hit all the high notes. Simply, but beautifully presented, the dish showed the epitome of balance and restraint.
Duck and rice – Mendes' most well known dish at Aldea is likely his "Arroz De Pato duck confit, chorizo, olive, duck cracklings" – Michael Laiskonis brought home the savory portion of the meal with his take on duck and rice. "Liberty Farms Duck, parsnip, hazelnut, vanilla, brown butter, black rice" proved a fabulous and perfect ending to the pastry chef driven savories. Though a nod to Mendes' dish, it was not a simple re-working. The rice was not rice as one might expect. It was pureed black rice, which was used as a base upon a cylinder of parsnip and the beautifully cooked duck breast lay along with hazelnut, brussel sprout leaves and hazelnut. A duck jus enriched with butter, chocolate, gingerbread spice and a port reduction was poured over the top to finish the dish. Once again, the pairing was spot on, this time with a 2006 Vosne Romanée from Hudelot-Noellat. The parsnip added just enough sweetness to balance the rich dish, while the vanilla provided depth and a lick your lips finish.
The savory courses from each of these outstanding pastry chefs were simply stunning and absolutely delicious. Knowing that most if not all of these pastry chefs had savory backgrounds, I was not in the least surprised. The precision and discipline of their craft really shined brightly in each of the dishes. That some of the tricks and ingredients from the pastry kitchen should also find their way int these savory offerings was also no surprise as the traditional barriers between the two disciplines have all but evaporated in recent years.
George Mendes showed himself to be no slouch either when it came to doing dessert. With such pastry talent inhabiting his kitchen, it must have been even more intimidating to do the desserts for their dinner. Fortunately, Mendes was more than up to the task. Starting with a palate cleanser of lime gelée in an eggshell, riffing off one of Laiskonis' desserts, Mendes and Aldea's Pastry Chef, Shelly Acuna hit their mark.
They hit it again with the principle dessert, "Butternut Squash Parfait, maple sponge, olive oil ice cream, caramelized pumpkin seeds" – delicious! It paired very well with a white port from Quinta de Santa Eufemia. To keep the boundaries suitably blurred, the dessert incorporated a number of traditionally savory items, putting them to very good use. The evening came to a wonderful end for at least one couple, as one of the desserts was served to a lady bearing an additional ingredient, a lovely diamond necklace!
Of course that was not quite the end of the evening. To complement a delicious "palate opener" cocktail served at the beginning of the meal (I never actually caught the name of the drink) that consisted of Absolut 100, Aperol, citrus, fino sherry, lavender and cinnamon, Iuzzini and Gordon provided a nightcap of a "Twentieth Century Foxy," Cacao infused Absolut 100, honey & vanilla syrup, lemon juice, Lillet Blanc and a touch of salt. The delicious cocktails made great bookends on a totally fun and delicious meal! Is it any wonder I love Aldea so much?