review: it takes a village…
Recently, on the one-year anniversary of aldea’s opening, the chef and owner, George Mendes, tweeted, “Never thought 1 year ago that rice would be our signature dish.”
Mendes’s “Arroz de Pato” – a paella stained with pimenton and saffron and enriched with duck stock – is delicious.
There are salty bits of black olives. There are strips of duck confit, meaty and tender. There are slices of chorizo, spicy and smoky. And there’s duck “crackling” - impossibly crisp duck skin that’s crumbled over the dish at the last minute.
All of this decorates a fantastically oily and flavorful tumble of rice topped with slices of juicy duck breast, sous vide. There wasn’t as much soccarat – the crisped rice at the bottom of the paella – as I expected, but everything else about it was so comforting, so engaging, I hardly minded.
A little salty? Perhaps. But take a clip of that sweet-tart apricot puree streaking across the dish like a comet and everything falls back into balance.
I had scurried over to aldea, running late from a meeting, to meet my three friends for an unusually early lunch. We had requested to be seated at the counter, which faces the open kitchen.
I had met Chef Mendes and his lovely wife the night before at a party, and he apologized that a last-minute meeting would call him away from lunch service the next day. But we really didn’t have anything to worry about because his cooks and staff took very good care of us.
We ordered the tasting menu. Ours deviated slightly from the printed tasting menu that I saw in the restaurant (I suspect because there were some dinner items that were not yet prepped at that time in the morning).
Also, I had really wanted to try the “Sea Urchin Toast,” so I requested that dish to be added on (snack-sized, its most handsome attribute was the ultra-crispy toast). Due to miscommunication (most likely on my end), they served the sea urchin to me in lieu of the scallop dish.
CLICK HERE to see all of the photos from this meal. Or, to see each individual photo, click on the course titles below.
Mushroom, coconut, linguiça sausage.
Garlic, coriander, pimenton, pressed jus.
Foie Gras “Mi-Cuit”
Birch beer gelee, peanuts and cocoa nibs.
New Bedford Diver Scallops
Farro risotto, cucumber, orange.
Sea Urchin Toast
Cauliflower cream, sea lettuce, lime.
Arroz de Pato
Duck confit, chorizo, olive, duck cracklings.
Pine nut custard, lemon sorbet.
Rice puffs, lemon cream, chicory ice cream.
George Mendes’s brand of Portuguese cooking is a wonderful balance between homey and haute. There’s a comforting aspect to his food that seems to grow organically out of the restaurant’s name: aldea is Portuguese for village. But you might not know it by looking at the plates here.
The “Shrimp Alhino,” for example, could tell a believable story about growing up in a fishing village, aspiring for greatness, and achieving it by landing on a sculpted china dish in a high-end restaurant in New York. Those two plump shrimp were coated in a garlic-spiked sauce, rust-stained from pimenton, and rich with pressed shrimp head jus. It was like a depth charge of ocean and spice.*
Or, consider the “Mussel Soup,” which kicked off our meal, warm, soothing, and stacked with coconut and curry. I don’t know if they have mussel soup like this in Portugal, but if they do, I bet it doesn’t look like this one. (Now I know I was eating in all the wrong places when I was in Portugal.) Dotted with pretty flowers, it was beautiful and delicious. The best parts were the slices of toasted baguette that somehow maintained their crunchiness after being submerged in soup. Meaty bits of chorizo and silky (white beech?) mushrooms completed the textural package.
A favorite dish?
It might have easily been that rice and duck paella. But it might just as easily have been the “Foie Gras ‘Mi-Cuit’” also.
That silky plaque of foie gras was escorted by a famous couple: beer and nuts.
I think that they forgot to plate the birch beer gelee, as it arrived later in a side dish. But once it arrived, the party was complete, painting a daring and successful portrait of bitterness, a difficult flavor to flatter. Upending expectations, the creaminess of the foie gras helped temper the bitterness of the beer foam, beer gelee and cocoa nibs. Chopped peanuts rounded out the flavor as well, along with dabs of sweet syrup (was it madeira? root beer? I can’t recall exactly). This was truly an exciting dish to experience.
Our dessert, the “Banana Brulee” seemed to ping that foie gras experience, with bitter chicory ice cream checked by a rich, sweet banana parfait on one end and a tart lemony cream on the other. Clusters of rice puffs glazed in dark caramel gave the dish a crunchy echo.
The pre-dessert was as equally engaging, a rich pine nut custard shot through with the tartness from the icy lemon sorbet and froth on top.
I don’t think anyone could accuse the food at aldea of being boring. At its best, it’s big-hearted – a generosity of flavors, a playground of textures. There’s something unexpected in each dish (for that scallop, it was a tiny supreme of orange perched on top and those crisp, refreshing cubes of cucumbers).
Service was warm and efficient, led by Heather Laiskonis (Yes, that Laiskonis. Incidentally, aldea’s pastry chef had trained at le Bernardin, under that Laiskonis.), the restaurant’s lively and good-spirited general manager.
At noon on a quiet Tuesday, the restaurant was empty. By the time we left a couple of hours later, quite a few tables had been occupied and vacated, including the other two seats at the counter. But even still, aldea deserves more traffic. It’s a dependable restaurant with a unique voice. And it hits its mark exactly, not attempting to outdo or over-think. I recommend it.
To read about the other restaurants I visited on this trip to New York, CLICK HERE.
31 West 17th Street
New York, New York 10011
* A touch over-seasoned, my companions thought. I didn’t think so, though I’ll admit that it might have been flirted with that fine line, though not actually stepping over it.
If you look on the backside of the menu at aldea, you’ll find “The Poem of Our Village,” written by Mendes’s grandfather, Haranho, celebrating the history of Ferreiros Do Dão, his family’s village. Here I transcribe it for you:
Bello largo da republica
O teu nome e um luarão
Foi daqui que naseu
Lindo Ferreirós Do Dão
Ferreirós quando nasceu
Já com vontade de trabalhar
Fazia umas enxadas
Para a terra desraviar
Foi baptizado de Ferreirós
E logo coberto de glorias
Fez a festa dos mil anos
Esta gravado na historia
~ by ulterior epicure on May 19, 2010.