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9th October
2009
written by spd
aldea

The austere, but elegant dining room at Aldea (img: Aldea)

Until two weeks ago, I hadn’t had much Portuguese fare since performing in Macau, China with West Side Story in 2005. This might partly explain my attraction to Aldea, George Mendez’ debut Flatiron restaurant, which has garnered glowing notices since it’s opening in May. His understated riffs on tradition Portuguese meals combine rusticity and refinement to create seemingly simple food that you want to eat. The setting is a narrow, austere two-level dining room, with six coveted seats overlooking the open kitchen in the back.

The concise dinner menu lists twenty-two items, of which fourteen are petiscos (Portuguese amuse), charcuterie, or appetizers. We began with the Sea Urchin Toast with Cauliflower Cream, Sea Lettuce, and Lime. I could take or leave it, but I appreciated the homage to Portugal’s Asian outposts. I followed with the dish that initially caught my attention when reading the review in Time Out New York: Migliorelli Peas with Tennessee Bacon, Soft-Poached Egg, Green Garlic and Truffle. The dish was comforting and straight forward and the egg was a thing of beauty, poached to perfection at precicely 64 degrees. However, the Tenessee Bacon was oppressively smoky and robbed the shaved black truffle of its presence on the plate. Still, I found myself finishing every last pea. David’s Baby Cuttlefish with Carmelized Lychee, Mentaiko, and Squid Ink was clean and focused, but I longed for more delicious lychee to balance the bitterness of the ink. He loved it.

When ordering our entrees, we asked the waiter for suggestions. He described the Arroz de Pato as simple and classic — “something your grandmother would make.” Sure, if your grandmother could sous vide a duck breast! This dish took traditional Portuguese flavor profiles to new heights! Duck appearing in three incarnations (sous vide breast, confit, and mouth-watering cracklings), dehydrated olives packing quite a punch, dollops of apricot paste lining the plate, brightening the rich flavor of the duck and thinly sliced chorizo. It was strongest dish of the evening — one worth returning for. We also had the Sea-Salted Chatham Cod with market cranberry and fava beans with lemon-basil mussel broth, because I couldn’t conclude a Portuguese meal without tasting Mendez’ preparation of this signature ingredient. Satisfyingly seared on the outside and resting on a bed plump beans, this dish looked very promising. The fish was quite nice, and the mussels hiding among the beans were so tender that my fork could could slice them without a fight. However, the same smoke permeated the broth. When we asked, the waiter said that the chef uses lardon to flavor the mussel broth. This is a case where the phrase “everything’s better with bacon” might fail to be true.

It appears that Mendez creates his menu like a couture designer creates a collection. Just as a fabric would re-appear two looks later, Mendez echos certain ingredients throughout the meal. In the case of the bacon, it felt redundant, but we were happy when the apricot paste showed its face again as one of the dipping sauces for the delicious “sonhos ‘little dreams'” (small donuts, elegantly enveloped in a linen napkin).

We probably didn’t need to order dessert, as a selection of small confections come with the check. The meal was flecked with these fine dining touches, presented here in an unstuffy setting. The food was moderately priced and inventive without being challenging. It’s the sort of restaurant that is easy to enjoy, and I would spend my time and money here again.

Aldea. 64 W 10th St.  New York, NY 10011-8702.  ph. (212) 505-7777

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