Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Aldea Review

Some newly-opened restaurants need time to get their feet wet and for the first few months while they get on track, patrons are often willing to cut them some slack and overlook any initial blunders. Aldea does not need you to go easy on it.

It stormed on to the New York dining scene in May with it already all figured out. Diners can come here with high expectations and have them met. Aldea has alternately been described as a Portuguese restaurant or a place doing Iberian cooking. The important part is that this is good food.

Early on a warm June evening, my dining companion and I arrived for our reservation, which had to be booked at least a week in advance. From the moment we walked in the door, when the hostesses greeted us cheerily, we felt the shine of Aldea's strongly professional service. The waitstaff treated us royally and the staff worked in the kitchen intently.

We were delighted to be seated at a four-person table by the open kitchen with a direct, unobstructed view of the chefs in action, including the head chef/owner, George Mendes.

Throughout our mealtime, we observed Mendes working with a calm control over his staff, cleaning up, directing, garnishing, doing whatever needed to be done. It was obvious from his concentration and his body language just how serious he is about his food and that he believes he is putting out great food. And he is.

The menu here is seasonal and broken up into Petiscos (small bites), Charcuterie, Appetizers and Main Courses. The waiter informed us that some of the items were quite new. He was extremely friendly and helpful at making suggestions- noting what dishes have been popular, what might go well with our drinks and elaborating on descriptions of dishes. The wines by the glass list was small, but the Cava and the Portuguese white wine we had were lovely.

We settled on the sea urchin toast with cauliflower cream, sea lettuce and lime; the house-cured duck ham served with membrillo and crostini; and the lightly-cured spanish mackerel marinated in meyer lemon and almond milk and topped with crunchy soy and slivers of seaweed paper. These three starters arrived together.

The sea urchin, served atop what was more like a small cracker, tasted of the sea, as sea urchin should if it's fresh, and it melded nicely with the lime. The crunch of the cracker was a nice contrast to the gentle texture of the sea urchin. The thinly sliced duck ham had a heavier taste to it, brightened by the fruity, but not sweet, membrillo - they worked without the crostini. Our favorite turned out to be the mackerel - so unexpectedly, the lemon harmonized perfectly with the almond as accessories to the fish.

For anyone who loves a good paella, the arroz de pato with duck confit, chorizo, olive, and duck cracklings is a great younger, hipper sibling dish. It was original and flavorful; the rice was beautifully cooked- thick and solid, cushioning the different forms of duck. The crunch of the cracklings combined with the delicate bites of confit combined in a rich aria.

In many restaurants, ordering fish can be a disappointing affair. An overcooked, steaky, tasteless filet that doesn't live up to the tastier appetizers that preceded it. But the wild bass I was served on this night was perfectly tender, coddled by a bubbly canopy of arbois wine foam, radiating with the flavors of the chickpea stew, saffron, and assorted fresh vegetables (including carrots and golden beets) accompanying it. Not a bite was wasted.

Still savoring the high from the savory courses, we moved on to dessert. Aldea wasn't letting up before the game was over. The dessert menu reflected a thoughtfulness for the last course, engaging in the idea that dessert can be complex. The chocolate in textures - showcasing the standard flavor in various ways - sounded intriguing, but dessert in summer calls for something fruit-based.

We chose the strawberry tasting: strawberry semifreddo, strawberry hibiscus jam, nutmeg creme sandwiched in a soft biscuit, strawberry sorbet and basil gel. Every bite was delicious - the hibiscus and basil flavors went terrifically with the strawberry - and we were practically licking the plate.

At the end of the meal, my dining companion and I both felt we had had a perfect meal and one that was of outstanding value. The beautifully designed, sophisticated interior - fresh flowers, bright white surfaces, striking lights- made the place seem upscale but not stuffy. The Times awarded Aldea two stars. Food in a Nutshell says: Aldea exceeds expectations grandly. It admirably manages to stand out in a city saturated with good and bad food.

(And to close our evening, a rare, lovely rainbow!)

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