[Pigging by Wilfrid: June 15, 2009]
A pleasure to welcome this Flatiron debutante from George Mendes, emerging from three years as chef de cuisine at Tocqueville.
Aldea is named for a Portuguese town where the Mendes family has roots, and both the menu and wine-list reflect an Iberian influence. But the swish, slim, two-level restaurant - ultra-trendy chef's counter at the rear - and the precise modern cooking, represent less parochial levels of ambition and achievement. This is not a sardine and salt cod joint with blue and white tiles and fado wailing in the background. Although the sardines are very good.
As trendy as the dining counter (essentially a sushi bar, although the chef's don't serve you) is the list of petiscos - small bites - which heads the menu. Although this might prompt grazing, it equally prompts the ordering of a four course dinner. In fact, on my first adventure here, flying solo, I managed two of the petiscos before proceeding to an appetizer. This part of the menu is not to be missed. Sea urchin is first rate, as it was at Tocqueville (several dishes here, in fact, recall Mendes' greatest hits from those days). It's served with a caulflower cream and strands of some kind of seaweed on a thin slice of toast.
The attention-grabber among the petiscos is the ramp dish, not because it features those pungent, briefly available bulbs, but because it has pig's ears. The pig's ear is not a lovely thing. I have eaten them in Spain and in New York, and never really found one I liked. And I am a huge fan of so-called "variety" meats. The Spanish drizzle them with oil and serve them cool - slippery and chewy. Even grilling doesn't surmount the presence of rubbery gristle. Mendes, I have to say, gets about as much out of pig's ears as there is to be got. He deep fries, I assume, to achieve the crisp surface and soft interior, and at least achieves sufficient temperature to break down the gristle, banishing the doleful rubber-band effect. With an apple salad, and a surprising blast of cumin in the yoghurt dressing, this dish successfully walks the tightrope between odd and comforting. I have eaten it twice.
Razor clams are Portuguese enough for anyone, although Mendes doesn't really put quite such an individual stamp on them as he does on other ingredients. Here they come with some indistinctly- flavored foam.
Sardines were deftly handled, though, with sweet notes from booze-soaked raisings and almonds cutting the oily fishiness. The filets - yes, he takes away those nasty bones - are served in a sort of delicate tuile sandwich, providing a subtle textural contrast. Among other appetizers, the "spring consommé was pretty as a picture, and another escapee from a Tocqueville market menu: peas, morels, a delicate mushroom ravioli, the addition of chorizo providing the Aldea touch.
There's charcuterie on the menu too, including the powerful Benton's country ham, but the nearest I got was the Tennessee bacon, tossed with peas and served with a soft-poached egg on top and spring truffles.
For one meal I sat at the chef's counter (painful though it must surely be, the chefs should take more advantage of this feature by forcing themselves to interact with the customers). It was notable that Mendes has a hand in just about everything which goes out of the kitchen, including desserts, which helps account for the precision and consistency I found on my visits. It's an especial pleasure to watch him brooding over the scallops on the plancha like a hen over its eggs.
He turns them, teases them, squeezes them - will return them from the plate to the grill if they're not perfect. He is sourcing good quality mollusks, and he likes them just raw in the center, caramelized around the outside.
Arroz con pato is a good serving of paella-style rice with duck three ways: the breast cooked rare and sliced thin, chunks of braised leg meat, and some pieces of duck "crackling" - the crisply rendered skin. There's chorizo in there too, just in case. The only weighty dish which disappointed was the hanger steak. As I ate it just once, I must assume I was unlucky - but it was not a good piece of meat. Very hard work on the jaws, and medium-rare hanger should much juicier. It looked splendid, with a fried egg on top, but in any case it seems to have been supplanted on the menu by baby goat, which sounds much more appropriate and interesting (and means I have to go back).
Cheeses were as they should be. Of the desserts sampled, I was most taken with the sonhos, the "little dreams."
They look like doughnuts, but are light and much less sweet than I anticipated. And they're served with imaginative, grown-up dipping sauces: spicy chocolate, hazelnut, and apricot with smoked paprika. A good end to the meal, even for those with an unsweet tooth.
Of the two Portuguese reds I tried, I preferred the Periquita Terras do Sado, with controlled fruit and a little acidity. This was $45, and there are plenty of options in the thirties on the list, along with some serious bottles like the 2005 Alion.
Good value, pleasant service, carefully attentive cooking. Go now, while chef Mendes is still squeezing his scallops.
A well-presented website right here.