To be entirely honest I’d never tasted Portuguese food before – I’d never even really given it much thought coming from small town Ohio where the closest we get to Spanish food is poorly conceived tapas made by sub-average line-cooks. Acknowledging this deficit in my culinary acumen after hearing about George Mendes, his rustic yet refined approach to Portuguese cooking, and his newly acquired Michelin Star I immediately turned to the reviews and then to the menus – what struck me right away were the glowing words of praise from trusted palates and a menu that featuring four of my favorite things – a reservation for one at the chef’s table/bar would follow in short order.
Walking past the Rubin museum en route from Time Warner Center I would, as usual, be early for my reservation – yet on my arrival the narrow restaurant was surprisingly barren – a lone couple in the front and a solo diner at the chef’s counter in back. A bit surprised given the attention that Mendes and his cuisine have received in recent months my bag and coat were checked by a pleasant young woman and I was quickly led to the opposite end of the chef’s counter where a wine list was provide and declined – iced water would suffice. Within moments the menu was in my hands and Shannon, a pleasant young woman who seemed to be the only server working at lunch, would explain the prix fixe vs. a la carte options and leave me a moment to decide. With the restaurant so empty I’ll note that service was efficient but not overly friendly – plates were delivered, empty plates collected, water filled – no more, no less.
Watching the action of the kitchen (from a vastly better seat than that of Compose) it seemed that Mendes was not present that afternoon, yet everything moved quickly, efficiently, and quietly. With my menu decisions made I motioned to Shannon that I was ready and as I was placing my order the room seemed to lighten up a bit as a group of four women were led in by the hostess and Chef Mendes appeared from upstairs with a bottle of wine for the diner at the end of the chef’s counter – apparently a supplier with whom Mendes was very familiar and would spend most of the afternoon chatting with about various issues while also tending to the kitchen. Always teaching but never lecturing I must say it was impressive to watch Mendes explain technique to his chefs and look over each plate as it left the kitchen – and after the supplier left he stepped right into line with the group – a respected member of the team more than their “boss.”
With my order placed and my first dish delivered while Mendes spoke with his friend at the bar I will note that I missed out on the daily amuse given to subsequent guests – a mussel soup in a shot glass; as such my first flavor of Aldea would be the house bread – a tasty rustic bread with a smoky crust and delicate crumb that paired nicely with the smooth and fruity house olive oil.
As an appropriate start to a veritable greatest hits collection for my palate, the first course of the afternoon would be delivered from the charcuterie section – the Cured Foie Gras with Bosc Pear, Maple, and White Port. First noting the price, $18, this was a significant piece of liver and the texture was creamy and perfectly prepared – not a vein or textural variant to be found. Served with two meager slices of brioche – a small gripe that I’d later note at four other restaurants on the same trip – the Foie’s plate mates were faultless – the caramelized pears, the crispy maple candy, the cocoa nibs, and most of all the drizzle of sweetened and reduced port.
Following one must order, another – an egg dish. Served as a “Slow poached egg with hen consommé, Benton’s bacon, root vegetables, and winter black truffles” the dish was amongst the best of my visit to New York. One part soup, one part upscale breakfast for lunch there was not a single unnecessary ingredient in the dish and after watching it prepared I realized where all that brioche I wanted with my Foie was going – into the soup as crispy buttery croutons. Clean and clear broth, smooth and creamy egg, crispy salty bacon, and parsnips/potatoes/carrots aplenty all topped off with the heady aroma of truffle.
With no gnocchi on the menu to complete my perfect quartet, the final savory of the meal would be duck in the form of Mendes’ signature “Arroz de Pato.” Essentially a saffron accented paella imbued with poultry (perhaps duck) stock and tossed with salty olives, spicy chorizo, crispy cracklins’, and confit leg the dish is finally topped with sous vide breast to form something utterly remarkable yet entirely rustic and familiar. With crisp rice at the base and splotches of Clementine orange arranged at the perimeter the dish was everything you could ask for in terms of taste, texture, and even visual appeal – something difficult to pull off with rice dishes in my opinion.
Tempted to go with the oft cited “Little Dreams” dessert my mind made a quick 180 when I saw the option on the daily lunch tasting – no matter how hard I try I simply can’t pass up bread pudding. Ordered up without a second thought it would take some time for the dish to be prepared – and for good reason in that although the bread was already soaking, the dish was entirely uncomposed otherwise. Craning my neck to watch the pastry chef in the back work her magic, Banana Caramel Bread Pudding would not disappoint – nor would its accompanying crème fraiche sorbet. Made once again with the same excellent brioche that paired with the foie and the egg but this time loaded with banana and creamy caramel before being topped with a crunchy cinnamon streusel and entering the oven the pudding was intensely sweet and hefty while the sorbet was distinctly airy and tangy – at a mere $8 a veritable bargain.
With the restaurant still less than half full but the table behind me making quite the racket I settled the bill in short order and made my way to the front where I collected my coat and made my way to the street sated but not overly full, very happy with the food but not overly impressed with the service or ability to interact with the kitchen staff despite the “Chef’s counter” concept. Bold and satisfying I will most definitely say that my first experience with Portuguese cooking was a favorable one and I wouldn’t hesitate to return for some of the less obvious choices in the future – chef’s counter or not – as there is no doubt in my mind that Mendes is a talented man whose career will only continue to blossom.
Heading south to collect my belongings as I would be changing hotel rooms that evening I opted to walk the path down 2nd Avenue – one of my very favorites for people watching in the LES – and in the process I happened to walk by David Chang’s Momofuku Ssam and Milk Bar. Borrowing a riff from my sister’s book that one is “never too full for ice cream” and having heard good things about the new cake truffles I decided to stop in and found Led Zeppelin’s 10-Years Gone, my favorite song of all time, playing overhead – call it fate?
Making my way past three hipsters at one of the standing counters and waiting in line behind a young father and his daughter ordering a Franken-Pie I browsed my options and was met by a friendly young lady who offered me a taste of the soft serve but unfortunately informed me that one cannot mix and match the truffles – 3 of the same flavor for $3 only. Only slightly disheartened and planning to return later in the trip if necessary I opted for a taste of the Malted Milk ice cream and while it was decent, the French toast was much better and as such I selected a 50/50 split of Cereal Milk and French Toast. Trying to decide if I wanted a cookie or a slice of pie I (shockingly) remembered that there was plenty more eating to be done I made my way to the street just as The Strokes “Electricityscape” was kicking in – a song that kept me in the store to finish my ice cream.