October 20, 2014 | BITE: My Journal

Welcome to George's Portugal: Counter Tasting at Aldea

Blood orange gets twisted to give contrast Chef Mendes wants with smoked and crisped sweetbreads. 
Blood orange gets twisted to give contrast Chef Mendes wants with grilled and sautéed sweetbreads.

          I thought I’d sworn off chef’s tasting menus -- too long, so torturous, and at the most demanding level, too much food. Now I find myself sitting on a comfortable padded seat at the counter looking into the kitchen of Aldea, surprised to find myself quite relaxed in the intimacy of its six-seat kitchen counter. There is something endearing about this one-man show by Chef-Owner George Mendes as he shares his love affair for Portugal in a $145 nine-course tasting (tip not included).

The chef is pretty much a one-man band, stepping up to describe each dish between prep.

          I find myself inhaling garlic and chorizo, kombu and grape vinegar. Loving unexpectedly subtle bacalao on creamy white girts with fried potato strings. Intrigued by blood orange in various guises jewelling the veal sweetbreads.

Just six comfortable seats at Aldea’s kitchen counter makes it an intimate evening.

          Aldea got its two stars from Frank Bruni in 2009 with a nod to the chef’s rustic way of tossing pork anywhere possible, while also whipping up ethereal foams. Less seduced by the yin and the yang of the kitchen, I sat upstairs at Aldea twice to decide if I wanted to recommend it. I was annoyed that the sea urchin toast was so small, and wild for the duck rice with chorizo, olive and duck cracklings -- to this day a dish Mendes doesn’t dare retire from the menu. I heard there was a cognoscente that vied for spots at the six-seat chef’s counter. Ultimately, I didn’t feel strongly enough to write about Aldea. And then, to be frank, surrounded by new riches, I simply forgot it, even as Michelin gave it a star.

An orange-tinted California wine with the kitchen poised for evening rush behind.

          Fickle New Yorkers fall in and out of love with two or three new restaurants every few weeks. I guess I must count myself among them. Early this fall, I got an email blast promoting Aldea’s nine-course chef’s tasting Mondays for just six at the kitchen counter, “with custom cocktails, craft beers and obscure wines from around the world.”  Why not? I thought. My Mondays can be quiet. Perhaps Aldea’s Mondays are too. My friend Wilford signs us up for the first available seats, charging $290 to his credit card.

The garde manger works on prep for the dinner crowd with an occasional detour for our tasting.

          I claim the far corner seat, liking the peeping Tom view of the cramped kitchen. The garde-manger leans over her knife as if we weren’t inches away. I analyze the crew -- the men not wearing hats must be George and his chef de cuisine.

Sommelier Doreen Winkler pours wildly divergent bottlings but is gentle in demeanor.

          Sommelier Doreen Winkler presents a bottle, showing the label, announcing the pour. Fino sherry. Instantly my mouth shifts into an Iberian zone. The sherry seems right with a small amuse announced by Mendes, cod with crème fraîche and zero cream in a curve of crisp. 

Aldea bakes its own chorizo bread and yogurt-moistened cornbread.

          A server passes with a bread tray, offering a mini baguette, fabulous chorizo bread and sticky corn bread -- the last two made in house. He drops them to a black slate disc. A server delivers small squares of mackerel -- “Pickled in escabeche, its bones smoked and roasted to make a broth that is mixed with kombu and shiso,” the chef leans in to elucidate.

Chef Mendes busies himself with sauce, uni, mussels -- all the elements of the splendid scallop dish.

          Now the chef is fully wound up, the timing between courses determined by how long it takes to smoke on the grill, or crisp in an iron pan -- tasting, tasting again, sniffing, tasting one more time.  Quietly, the kitchen crew moves around him serving the house, occasionally stepping in to load the too-tiny salamander when six plates need to be glazed all at once.

My favorite dish, seared scallop and sea urchin in a rich and briny saffron-touched foam.

          A single diver scallop is glazed with a blowtorch, then delivered with mussels and sea urchin in a saffron and uni foam. It’s my favorite dish of the night. The sommelier pairs it with a pinot gris from Sonoma colored peach by its skin.

The chef adjusts the flavor and perfume of his bacalao on grits -- tasting, sniffing.

          Down the counter, some couples are lost in each other. But I’m fascinated by the chef’s workout. I cannot imagine what’s behind the passionate dance as he stirs and sniffs, and tastes and adds and tastes again, shakes his head, pours and tastes. But bowls of complex and gentle bacalao flakes on creamy white corn grits with potato strings and flurries of black olive explains it all.

Under the wild greens is tender smoked quail a scattered gooseberry halves.

          Smoked quail, hidden under wilted wild leaves with gooseberries, is remarkable too -- not rare as I would prefer, but even so, juicy.  “This one is to eat with fingers,” Mendes urges. Winkler tries to pour the Portuguese Luis Pato, Quinta do Moinho, Beiras, 2001 -- a pricey wine -- directly from the Coravin device that keeps away the air. But that doesn’t work and she is forced to take it off the device and simply pour.

The label is charming but I’m not a beer drinker and there seems too much mix-and-match to me.

          I can’t fault her, because in fact, she has a modest, ingenuous manner. But the truth is, I don’t like modest wines following grander labels, reds intermingling with whites and pinks. I don’t appreciate so many different quaffs with any dinner. I’m not a beer drinker so I turn down sour ale from Belgium with the black squid rice. Perhaps it’s as shocking and brilliant a match as George Clooney and Amal Alamuddin. And perhaps most affluent New Yorkers get a kick out of exotic drink pairings. 

I’m not surprised to see squid and squid ink risotto in a celebration of Portugal.

          I simply wait for the Gamay/Pinot Noir from the Loire, poured to sip with the veal sweetbreads, grilled over charcoal, crisped in a cast iron pan and tossed with ribbons of dried blood orange. There is anchovy pesto in two little blobs on the plate, as well as a scattering of powdered citrus skins -- orange, lemon and lime. (“A trick I learned at Arpège,” Mendes tells me later.)

Under a ransom of spicy matsutake mushrooms is the chef’s 60-day aged hanger steak

          Enough is just becoming more than enough for me, when the chef’s black pepper 60-day-aged hanger steak arrives on potato mousseline, hidden under a shingled roof of matsutake. Not so amazingly, I find a revived appetite with the appearance of red meat and for that unique, complex spiciness of the mushroom. 

I shot the sweet Vermouth dessert wine but missed memorializing the orange-carrot sorbet.

          Smooth blood orange-carrot sorbet is my idea of an inspired finish, not really needing its coconut granite and especially not the tagalong buttermilk custard.  I savor the concord grape sorbet that follows too, though not the awkward pumpkin and fall squash bread pudding it rides in on.  As a coda, he sends each of us a cellophane-wrapped cake, “for a midnight snack later or breakfast tomorrow.”

          If any one of us didn’t know George Mendes before, well, now we’re all family. He steps off his kitchen skateboard to chat with each of us in turn. He brings me a copy of his cookbook, “My Portugal: Recipes and Stories.” And kisses my cheek.

31 West 17th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues. 212 675 7223. Monday through Thursday 5:30 to 10 pm. Friday and Saturday Till 11 pm. Closed Sunday. November Counter tastings are sold out. Watch Website for December post.

Photos may not be used without permission of Gael Greene. Copyright 2014. All rights reserved.

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