Entries in Aldea (4)




Note: Just a month after switching to a prix fixe-only format, chef George Mendes flip-flopped after regulars told him they preferred the à la carte menu. So Aldea now has the same menu every day (though there is still a $95 tasting menu). Ironically, the switch to prix fixe is what drew me back to Aldea, but obviously with the customers who mattered, it wasn’t popular.


Last week, Ryan Sutton, Bloomberg’s restaurant critic, reported that Aldea has switched to a prix fixe-only format on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays. The chef, George Mendes, told Sutton that the new format would “mak[e] Aldea better” and although it’s a price hike, it’s “more about the ingredients and what I’m offering.” The chef also said that he’d eventually like Aldea to be a prix fixe restaurant every night.

I hadn’t written about Aldea since shortly after it opened, in mid-2009. I gave it 2½ stars at the time. Every pro critic in town gave it two or three. It also won a Michlen star in 2011, which it has maintained. The Sutton piece made me curious to see what has changed.

The space remains, as I described it four years ago, “flat-out gorgeous.” It’s on the casual side of formal, but comparatively serene by today’s standards. The sound track is quiet enough not to interfere, and consists mostly of items a guy my age would recognize.

The à la carte menu remains relatively brief, with six Petiscos, or snacks ($8–16), five selections of hams and terrines ($9–18), eight starters ($11–21), and eight entrées ($27–38). By way of comparison, four years ago $27 was the most expensive main course, rather than the least expensive. That was, of course, right in the teeth of the financial crisis, and Aldea was an unproven restaurant then.

On weekends, your choices are a $75 three-course prix fixe (probably with an amuse or two, though the menu doesn’t say that) or a tasting menu at $95. Given such a small difference, the tasting menu was the obvious choice. (Click on the image, left, for a larger copy of the menu.) We also ordered the wine pairings, which add another $50 per person, bringing the total for two to $376 including tax and tip.

The wine list remains a weakness. As it was from the beginning, it’s just one sheet of paper, printed on both sides. It’s a decent selection, and fairly priced, given that limitation. But you’d think, after four years, critical acclaim, a Michelin star, the economy in better shape, and the restaurant well past its probation, that they’d have upgraded it.

The printed tasting menu listed nine courses. Fifteen items were sent out, although many (especially early in the meal) were rather small—essentially just bites.


The amuse bouche was described as a “mojito meringue” (above left). This was followed by a number of small courses, several of which appear on the regular menu as “Petiscos.” First up was a trio of items (above right): an Island Creek oyster with Steelhead trout caviara terrific mussel soup with fennel and chorizo; and a Bacalhau Croqueta with roasted garlic aioli.


Then a beet floret with goat cheese sitting in moss (above left) and a dellicate poached quail egg (above right).


Finally, a remarkable warm stew of roasted bacalhau (codfish), scrambled egg, crispy potato, and black olives, served warm inside a hollowed-out egg (above left); and a dish that I believe has been on the menu from the beginning, the sea urchin toast (above right).


There was a rich Foie Gras Terrine (above left) with cranberry jam and an apple poached in vanilla. The toasted brioche (not pictured) was a considerable improvement over the untoasted country bread that the chef sent out four years ago, but he sent out only two slices of it, when four were needed.

A Diver Scallop (above right) was the evening’s one blunder. The delicate flavor of the poor scallop was overwhelmed by a bitter black radish sitting on top of it, and not redeemed by glazed turnips and hen-of-the-woods mushrooms.


A crisped brick of suckling pig (above left) suffered no harm from accompaniments of little neck clams, pickled cauliflower, carrots, and savoy cabbage; but I didn’t feel like those extra items enhanced the pig, either.

The cheese course (above right) was a Kinderhook sheep’s milk cheese from the Hudson Valley, with a wheat cracker and spice fig marmelade. (Sorry about the awful photo.)


The pre-dessert (above right) was exactly what such an intermezzo should be, a vanilla custard with mango sorbet and mint granita.

The dessert (above left) was a lemongrass and coconut-milk panna cotta with a blizzard of other ingredients: poached kumquat, coconut-Thai basil granita, and coriander-fennel crisp. This struck me as a bit too citrus-y. Your mileage may vary. There was a plate of petits fours (right) that we were far too full to fully appreciate.

The service was excellent. The meal took about 2½ hours to complete, which is a reasonable pace for this amount of food. The wine pairings were well chosen, given the constraints of the list, but I am not going to itemize them. There were seven generous pours, which was more than enough alcohol for one evening. I can’t evaluate the economics of the chef’s prix fixe experiment, but I had no trouble getting a prime-time Friday evening reservation the same day. The dining room was doing a good business, but was not full.

As is so often the case, the smaller courses at the beginning of the meal (the petiscos and appetizers) pleased us more than the main courses, although the scallop was the only dish that failed outright. No chef is going to send out fifteen courses that please everyone. Among tasting menus available in New York, this is surely one of the better ones below $100.

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

Food: Modern Portuguese cuisine, liberally interpreted
Service: Upscale but not formal
Ambiance: A beautiful, fairly quiet, modern room.



Review Recap: Aldea

Today, Frank Bruni awards the expected two stars to Aldea:

The cooking is precious, lusty, ultramodern, rustic and a host of other adjectives that don’t normally squeeze together but find themselves in a tight, mostly happy clutch here. Although Aldea has a clean, sleek and relatively spare look, it has a much more complex taste.

One minute you’re nibbling on crisp pig’s ears. The next you’re carefully maneuvering your spoon under a translucent, quivering orb of concentrated mushroom broth — one of those liquid ravioli that the Spanish alchemist Ferran Adrià made famous — in an avant-garde consommé.

The entree in front of you is a go-for-broke hillock of rice with duck cracklings and black olives. The entree in front of your companion is a refined, butter-soft fillet of wild bass that has been poached in a technique similar to sous vide and tucked under a billowing nimbus made from Arbois and air.

For dessert there are doughnuts (though they’re labeled “little dreams”). But there is also “chocolate in textures,” a dark tableau that seems as ready for exhibition as for ingestion.

I more-or-less agree with all of this, although I could have done without the pejorative “precious.” One could easily imagine Aldea earning the third star eventually, an outcome Bruni himself anticpates: “…there’s plenty to eat, whether you’re hungry for something delicate or blunt. It establishes Aldea as a restaurant worth trying, and Mr. Mendes as a chef worth keeping an eye on.”


In Critic’s Notebook, Bruni has a look at the latest trends in pizza:

I believe by and large that Neapolitan pies — if they can avoid soupiness, as they did at Motorino — are the most appealing. Yet the pan pizzas at Veloce Pizzeria, which opened in the East Village a month and a half ago, pleased me every bit as much. Sara Jenkins, the chef who supervises their production, said she isn’t sure whether to call them Sicilian or grandma style. Whatever their proper tag, these denser, richer, square pies were superb. The nicely charred crust — with a dough of potato, durum and fine zero-zero flour — was firm enough to support a generous measure of toppings. Its extra-crisp edges had the salty, zingy flavor and texture of a frico. And the toppings were first-rate, the mushroom pizza showcasing a bevy of hen-of-the-woods.

I believe that firmer, less runny cheese works better most of the time, and yet the Pugliese pie at Motorino, which uses wet-centered burrata, was a masterpiece, the burrata lending the pie an opulence and creaminess.

Crisp crusts, it turns out, aren’t so difficult: most places I visited had mastered that much. But crusts that are crisp without being dry — that have some give and suppleness — are an altogether trickier matter. That’s where Lucali, for example, fell down, though the ratio of mozzarella to tomatoes on its plain pie was faultless, and the tomatoes had a beautiful, round flavor.

This is Bruni at his best. Had he been doing this, instead of reviewing high-end restaurants, the last five years would have been much happier for Times readers—and, we get the sense, for Bruni as well.


Review Preview: Aldea

Record to date: 5–2

Tomorrow, Frank Bruni reviews Aldea, George Mendes’s lovely new Portuguese spot in the Flatiron District.

The Skinny: Everybody loves Aldea. We loved Aldea, giving it 2½ stars. Among the other star-bestowing critics, Restaurant Girl and Bloomberg’s Ryan Sutton both awarded three. Alan Richman has a rave in GQ, published earlier today. He doesn’t do stars, but in review that compares Mendes to Alain Ducasse, there’s little doubt about where he stands.

The misanthropic Adam Platt awarded a more circumspect two stars in New York, as is his wont, adding that “If the menu were slightly larger, we’d add another.”

Bruni has never panned a place that all of the other critics liked, so we figure that Aldea is a shoo-in for at least two stars. (Remember, if you’re a neophyte at this, that two stars is a compliment, even though it’s only half of the way to the top rank of four stars.)

Could Aldea get three stars from Frank Bruni? Aldea is a good deal better than at least half-a-dozen places that have received that honor from him, so it’s a distinct possibility. If it were Italian, you could pencil in the third star right now. As it is merely Portuguese, he’ll be grading on a different curve, and we suspect it will fall a hair short. Adam Platt’s ratings tend to correlate with Bruni’s, and Platt gave an enthusiastic deuce.

The Prediction: We wouldn’t mind being wrong, but we believe that Frank Bruni will award two stars to Aldea.



Note: Click here for a more recent review of Aldea.


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