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George Mendes and his investors must have the patience of saints. After a build-out of nearly two years, their restaurant Aldea has just opened in the Flatiron District. Luckily for them, it is worth the wait. Aldea may be the best restaurant that has opened this year.

Mendes certainly has the pedigree to turn out excellent food. His New York background alone includes stints at Bouley, Lespinasse, Wallsé, and most recently, Tocqueville, where he was chef de cuisine. He also staged at several Michelin-starred places in Europe.

The build-out is flat-out gorgeous, with a design by Stephanie Goto. The bi-level space is not as elegant as Corton (nor is it intended to be), but it has a similar quiet elegance. The shimmering glass walls inside and at the doorway are especially striking.

You can sit at a bar facing the open kitchen, but we sat at one of the tables, which are both comfortable and quiet.

The menu is loosely inspired by Mendes’s Portuguese heritage (the restaurant is named for the village his family comes from). It is not a long menu, and we appreciate that. We’d rather choose from the handful of things the chef is convinced he can do well, especially when he is breaking in a new kitchen

There are just four Petiscos, or small bites ($6–9), five Charcuterie ($8–15), six appetizers ($10–15), and eight entrées ($19–27). The chef would probably have been serving $34 entrées last year (and we wouldn’t have minded), but he has wisely adjusted to reality.

The wine list is realistic too. It’s just two succinct pages, most of it pitched at $50 and under.

I started with a snack of Pickled Ramp Bulbs ($7; above), with cripsy pig ears, apple, and a spalsh of cumin yogurt. If you haven’t tried pig ears, this is the dish that could turn you into a convert.

For the appetizer course, we had two of the charcuterie selections, the Rustic Pork Terrine ($8; above left) and the Foie Gras Terrine ($15; above right), both technically excellent, though neither as memorable as the pig ear salad or the entrées to come.

Pork Belly ($19; above left) comes from Bev Eggleston’s reknowned herd, and Mendes nails it. Arroz de Pato ($20; above right) is Mendes’s take on paella, with three kinds of duck (confit, chorizo and duck cracklins) on a bed of rice.

The kitchen’s execution seemed to us absolutely flawless. We suspect that Mendes has dialed down his ambitions here—an entirely understandable strategy in these price-conscious times. This is still a deeply impressive restaurant. We can only hope that his achievement will get the recognition that it deserves.

Aldea (31 W. 17th Street between Fifth & Sixth Avenues, Flatiron District)

Food: **½
Service: **
Ambiance: **½
Overall: **½

Reader Comments (1)

Good review!
Just a comment, 'Arroz de Pato' it's a truly traditional portuguese dish, maybe one of the most recognizable, and not a derivation of spanish 'Paella',

Keep up the good work!

June 21, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterjd

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