31 W. 17th St., New York, NY 10011; map); 212-675-7223; aldearestaurant.com
Service: Precise and familiar
Setting: Sleek modern room perfectly reflects the innovative and contemporary cooking.
Compare to: Momofuku Ssam, Tocqueville, Casa Mono
Cost:3 courses, $24.10
George Mendes will celebrate the first anniversary of Aldea, his sophisticated, Portuguese-influenced restaurant, in May. With time at Tocqueville, Bouley, and stints in the kitchen of renowned Basque chef Martin Berasategu, and both Roger Vergé and Alain Ducasse in France under his belt, Mendes brings all this experience to Aldea, which combines precise, classical technique with flavors from the Iberian peninsula and beyond. The name Aldea is a derivation of "village" in Portuguese, but the restaurant is a good deal more cosmopolitan than than the name implies. There is something very contemporary and very New York about Aldea.
The sleek modern room gives you the vague feeling that you're in a first class lounge of an airport, but if so you're there on an economy class budget. At dinner a five-course tasting menu is $80—a more than fair price for the level of cooking—but at lunch a three-course menu is only $24.10. The service is first class too—professional yet familiar and friendly.
There are three selection for the first two courses and two for dessert. Options include a nettle soup and pear arugula salad for starter, and skate "a la plancha" or farro risotto, but I went with the heavier proteins. A terrine of pork and duck is referred to as rustic on the menu, but it is actually rather refined—a buttery texture and hearty flavor are cut perfectly by a tart Muscat gelee.
A chicken breast comes perfectly cooked with a skin as crisp as fried chicken and an interior as tender as that of a sous vide bird. My first bite tasted perfectly European—in typical French style, the essence of the bird was reduced and intensified; the crunchy skin and breast meat were intensely "chickeny." But once the coconut curry takes the stage, you're dragged to Bangkok and points Eastward. The pleasingly wilted bok choy and earthy mushrooms added a complexity to the creamy broth.
Truth be told, the chicken was so perfectly cooked that I sort of missed the purity of its flavors once the supporting ingredients revealed themselves, but I can't argue with the layering of flavor nor the technique—both were beyond reproach.
A chocolate brioche bread pudding with an exotic spice milk ice cream is not too wintery in these first days of spring. The dense looking pudding is actually rather light and fluffy, and despite the dark chocolate hue the cocoa flavor is not overpowering, allowing the flavor of the egg to come through.
Aldea is a more important restaurant than the attention it garners. Mendes' cooking is first rate and his flavors are bold and compelling. His cooking references the innovative nouveau Spanish and Portuguese cuisines, but also incorporates a more global vision and uses local ingredients when appropriate. Go at lunch and see the world for $24.10.
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