As we learn by traveling, frequently dining out, reading online, watching television, living in culturally diverse communities, having more cultural diverse friends and through experimentation at at home, we must now be the most food-educated generation ever. Chefs of our time also have a tremendous amount of exposure to other cultures, cuisines and techniques. So, we see many restaurant menus offering dishes that reflect a varied fusion of ingredients, ethnicities, techniques, artistry, science and style.
Aldea in New York City, is doing its part to add Portuguese cuisine into this modern global movement. Aldea has a stronger connection to contemporary cooking philosophy, I would say, than it does to traditional Portuguese cooking. Frankly, It's ironic that a nation of people, who traveled extensively around the world for centuries, still have a fairly closed culinary heritage. So, the opportunities for Aldea to integrate aspects of the Portuguese tradition with the rest of the world seem fresh and endless.
I've had Aldea on my to-do list for a while and, finally, I found the time and inclination. I arrived and immediately saw that the restaurant has that branded look — that design school look. Inside, it was a little dark, a little tight and filled some good -looking people, mostly dressed in black.
The maître d' offered me a seat at the chef's table, way in the back and facing the open kitchen — really close to the action, like at a sushi bar, but without the high counter. I had complete and total view of everything. In one corner, someone laboriously prepared vegetables and legumes by cutting off stems, or peeling them, all to be used in someone's meal later. It reminded me of my dad having us peel fava beans, or split pea pods or shuck corn as kids in the summer.
Directly in front of me, someone plated all the appetizers, one after another. I got to learn that section of the menu really quickly. His main tools were Tupperware containers, a set of tweezers kept in his shirt pocket and a towel, of which there were very many about the kitchen within arm's reach. Many of the ingredients were kept in pre-measured portions inside countless small Tupperware containers. He often used tweezers to delicately arrange (literally arrange) almond slivers or tiny edible flowers on the dish. Everything was delicate. At times it seemed more like a laboratory than a kitchen. And before each plate was announced for pick up, it was wiped off with a tower over and over again. In fact, this is a constant action through out the kitchen and after seeing the plates wiped clean over and over again, I started to feel like they were dirty. Not truly dirty, but a sort of Pavlovian mind game.
Just past was the chef, George Mendes, preparing all the entrées with the help of his sous chef. He also managed the kitchen and like the dad at a BBQ, he was the only one running the big stove. Each entrée was plated under spot lights like it was on stage. Not those keep-em-hot-french-fry-lights, but seemingly the kind you see all around a dressing room mirror. And what happened under the lights - lots of rearranging and lots of wiping of the plate. My feeling was more of curiosity, than excitement.
Sea Urchin Toast
The menu has a "small bites" section, (pre-appetizer, amuse bouche) and on it was one of my absolutely favorite foods — sea urchin roe. These tender buttery morsels were placed on a thin toast/cracker with grain mustard, mayo, wasabi and delicate tiny greens tweezered on top. It was an interesting combination, but I struggled to feel the sensation of the silky smooth sea urchin roe and could barely taste the buttery salty, sweet delicacy. I was a little disappointed that instead of getting a hyped-up preparation of sea urchin row, I mostly sensed and experienced crunchy mayo cracker out of this dish.
I remember the time I discovered how amazing coconut milk could be in savory dishes. My first coconut dish was a preparation of crab and coconut stew on rice that I had at an African restaurant in Lisbon over twelve years ago. One of my more recent favorites is the Thai soup, Tom Kha Gai, and the best is available at Lotus of Siam, a Thai restaurant located just off the main strip in Las Vegas. At Aldea, the Mussel soup is a fusion of Asian and Portuguese ingredients, namely mussels, ginger, coconut and Portuguese linguiça sausage, that really works for me. Linguiça is a Portuguese sausage similar to chouriço and was once made primary with tongue (lingua), but today is made just like chouriço, just smaller or thinner in size. The plating is completed table side when the soup broth is poured into the both, to the side, not over, the other ingredients in the bowl. The broth leaves one half the bowl light and frothy, while the other half was just a little vivid in color leaving a yin yang-like design within the bowl. Since the ingredients in the soup had not all been cooked or boiled together, they kept their unique flavors, making each spoonful taste seemingly like a new soup. One spoonful of broth and linguiça gives you one effect. The next spoonful carries a mussel and a teeny-tiny slice of tomato and that's another experience. It was an entertaining soup with complex and complete flavor signatures.
Pennsylvania Roast Suckling Pig
Leitão da Bairrada, often written as such on Portuguese restaurant menus, means piglet (suckling) from Bairrada, which is a wine-producing region of Portugal, just south of Douro, with the famous gastronomic tradition for roasted suckling pig. So, at Aldea, you're not going to see a 20 lbs. piglet on a giant rotating skewer in this kitchen laboratory. Instead, is a soft of compacted block of pieces of roasted meat, that gets seared on one side to mimic the effect of the roasted skin. Hmmm, I didn't know to make of it. The dish had to such blocks, and I as I ate, I could taste the obviously roasted pork flavor, but the texture was unappealing to me. I mixed bites of pork with the charred mango, the sauce and the crispy potato chip that was on top of everything, and it was OK. I sort of liked it at times, but I never loved it or disliked it. It was very filling though, and I was at risk of getting too full for dessert, which after having seen a number of them go by, I was not going to leave without trying.
Chocolate Cinnamon Tarte
Another person working hard in the kitchen was the dessert chef. She had her own little space that I could quite get a good view of, but I could the glorious little treasures coming out of there and into the dining room. And I wanted one.
On the side of the chocolate cinnamon tarte was some honey lavender ice cream that immediately became my favorite ice cream, at that moment anyway. It's texture was like that of real Italian gelato — super silky — and it was so aromatic that I thought if flowers produced milk, then this is what I'd make with it. The chocolate tarte was not equally as good, but certainly deserved to be on the same plate. The tarte's crunchy top popped off, leaving a crunchy chocolate cup underneath that was filled with soft creamy chocolate. The three layers gave it interesting texture and mixed nicely with the ice cream and the caramel sauce. Each layer having it's own level of bitterness and sweetness. I had a Moscatel de Sétubal to accompany the dessert. It has enough sugar and flavor to stand up to the dessert.
31 West 17th Street
Manhattan NY 10011