I had a good feeling about how the night was going to go when I ran into executive chef and owner George Mendes, a contestant on Top Chef Masters season 3, while entering the restaurant. I’m pretty positive he thinks I’m crazy because I was staring at him rather star struck both because he’s attractive and because I had never had the privilege of seeing the executive chef of a high profile restaurant in-person; I normally assume that a sous chef is creating my meal and/or the executive chef is in the back. At Aldea the kitchen is open downstairs and there are six seats at the chef’s counter overlooking the kitchen activity. Though I was seated in the Mezzanine level, I was thoroughly impressed that diners are given the opportunity to watch Mendes in his element. I’m going to try to request sitting there next time.
With that said, that was just the beginning of what I consider to be a truly special dining experience. There is really a great pace in which you receive the dishes and the complimentary bread and “dessert” are just nice touches to the beginning and end of the meal. The portion sizes are perfect. The plating and presentation is stunning; it’s a beautiful mix of colors, not just flavors. And the food far exceeded any of my expectations. I had heard mixed reviews on Aldea, and I have to say I come out on the side that would put the Michelin star-restaurant at the top of my list. This is a very strong statement, but I feel that George Mendes cooks the kind of food that makes me question why I would ever eat anywhere else.
Bread Basket: To start, you are given the choice of 1 of 3 different types of bread with a side of olive oil for dipping: a French sour dough, a multigrain and a bacon corn bread. Between my friend and I, we were able to try all three options and they were seriously all really good. I don’t normally comment on this portion of the meal, but the presentation and options themselves were a step above your normal bread and oil starter. The bacon corn bread was particularly delicious. It had a great texture (not dry) and a nice buttery taste with a hint of bacon; it was the perfect balance. Having lived in the South, I know my corn bread, and this was top notch.
Harvester: This cocktail was composed of calvados (an apple brandy from Normandy), chai-vermouth and an apple cider foam, all of which combined to make a delicious drink. It was a pleasant surprise, considering I’ve found that I’ve been unimpressed with the cocktails at other trendy locations (Vinegar Hill House and Freemans, for instance). The food blog Serious Eats did a roundup of 7 Autumn Cocktail recipes from Aldea right before my visit, and the Aldea Bartender, Brian Block, said this was his favorite. I was worried about ordering it because I thought it might be too sweet, but it was the right balance of apple and chai flavoring. It was honestly the perfect autumn cocktail. I highly recommend stopping by Aldea even if it’s just to try this drink.
Sea Urchin Toast: This comes atop a very thin piece of toast with a cauliflower puree, mustard seed and lime. At the end of the day, I don’t think I like sea urchin. It has a very slimy texture with a slight ocean taste. In this specific context the combination of flavors was very rich and rather overbearing. The toast was very thin which I think allowed for these flavors to shine, I just found it difficult to enjoy something that rich. Nevertheless, I should probably note that this was a must-order on other review sites.
Spanish Octopus A La Plancha: Octopus with heirloom tomatoes, burrata cheese, apples and watercress emulsion. The octopus is cooked perfectly and goes really well with the other flavors in this dish. The apples specifically stood out as a flavor burst against the more muted backdrop. My only complaint is I felt that the plate left for some confusion; I wasn’t sure how to attack. I, therefore, went on to try a variety of combinations (octopus with burrata, burrata with tomato, octopus with burrata and apple, etc.) and each element tasted delicious both separate and in these different combinations.
New Bedford Diver Scallops: The 4 scallops came adorned with trumpet royale mushrooms, radishes and turnips with a side of Anson Mill’s grits. I feel like you know a dish is exceptional when you can’t stop eating the “garnish.” The scallops were perfectly cooked, the mushrooms were a perfect pairing and yes I even liked the radishes and turnips with the dish. Though at first my complaint was that the scallops didn’t come on the grits, I ended up taking that comment back. With the grits on the side, you made sure that the flavors remained separate. These grits were also some of the best grits I think I’ve ever had, and that’s also a large statement coming from a girl who’s eaten her share of authentic Southern cuisine. If I could swim in a vat of these grits, I would. They had the perfect texture and butter flavoring. I just couldn’t eat enough.
Creekstone Farm’s Hanger Steak: I’ve mentioned in an earlier post my hesitance to order hanger steak, but sometimes you just have to go with your gut. With a Goan-Portuguese eggplant curry and sweet corn and bean succotash, this dish was calling my name, and boy am I glad that I went with it. While this is hands down the best hanger steak I’ve ever had, I’d even be willing to say this might be one of the best steaks I’ve ever eaten. Period. As far as I’m concerned steak is only good when cooked perfectly medium rare with no additional “fanfare” – I don’t want goat cheese, butter, mushrooms, onions, steak sauce… just give me the steak! And Mendes presents a truly simple and perfect piece of meat. The corn and bean succotash had great flavor and the eggplant curry was like nothing I’ve ever eaten before. I particularly liked mixing the eggplant with the succotash and eating it with the steak at the same time. Overall this is a fantastic dish I intend to revisit again.
Arroz de Pato: A paella dish of duck confit, chorizo, olives and oranges. I felt like I had to address this, seeing as it is “the dish to order” in many reviews and recommendations of Aldea. While I love duck and chorizo, I can’t stand olives and I just couldn’t really order a dish knowing olives were a large flavor component. I was torn between ordering what I wanted (the hangar steak) and feeling an obligation to try the dish Mendes is most well-known for. With that said, I’m glad that I didn’t end up ordering this. The reviews were mixed, in which many said that the dish was overpoweringly flavorful, which was my complaint about the sea urchin. I’m glad that I went with a main dish that I could formulate an organic opinion about.
Chocolate Pear Parfait: Often times I’m usually only moderately satisfied with the desserts that I order in restaurants. But this was pretty exceptional. The chocolate parfait had the perfect texture and flavor atop a gianduja crisp. The contrast between those two layers was really something. Then the pears were infused with ginger and there was a gingersnap ice cream to boot. It was so good. I want to eat this again and again!
After the Meal: Aldea also gives you some “desserts” following the meal. There was what I believe was an apricot jelly, a delicious financier cake, and a dark chocolate cocoa ball atop cocoa nibs. All of these were exceptional and a nice surprise end to the meal.
Honey Crisp & Gala Apple Salad: root vegetables, Jasper Hill (VT) blue cheese, concord grape, yogurt
Goat Cheese Parfait: stone fruit, cajeta, honey│lavender ice cream
Aldea: 31 West 17th Street New York, NY ($$$)