"I'd rather do this than talk about music any day of the week," says Daniel Kessler, the guitarist for Interpol. We're sitting at the chef's counter ofAldea, George Mendes's 17th Street restaurant, and Kessler is taking a break from promoting the band's new album, El Pintor. For a dude who's in a band that's known for brooding, Kessler's enthusiasm for restaurants is almost surprising. While trying to schedule the dinner, he quickly offered a full index of restaurants he wanted check out: Bâtard, Contra,Sushi Yasuda, Racines, and élan among them. “I’m a little OCD about stuff," Kessler says. "So once something’s on my brain I’m like, I must go and do. It’s very Rain Man-esque."
“Right now we’re off to the races,” says George Mendes, with the sound of clanging in the background. He’s standing at the Chelsea — or maybe we'll call it NoMad — construction site that will house his new, un-named restaurant scheduled to open later in the fall. It’s long been anticipated that Mendes, a Portuguese-American chef who just celebrated five years at his well-regarded Flatiron restaurant Aldea, would expand into a more casual style. Earlier this year, he popped up at Madison Square Eats with the highly enjoyable 100 Sardines, a lunchtime tent that served sardine toasts and salted cod croquettes, two classic dishes from his native Portugal that New Yorkers and visitors could not get enough of.
Aldea, is a spanish name for a small village and in many ways Michelin Chef George Mendes has created a small slice of Portugal in his exciting portuguese restaurant on 17th Street in NYC.
Chef Mendes, while doing research for his cookbook, returned to Portugal, his homeland and his culinary roots. In a recent Wall Street Journal Article, He stated: :"it’s a powerful thing to be a chef for so long, then discover this rustic, gutsy cooking style—and realize that it’s actually where you started out. That trip, I think, made me a better, braver cook. It taught me not to be preoccupied with appealing to a modern New York palate, not to be afraid to bring forth more regional and classical cooking, to dig deeper into my upbringing. To use my roots"
Aldea, Chef Mendes restaurant, is narrow, long, minimalist in its furnishings and table settings. The idea is for patrons to feel comfortable & casual while dining on exquisite Iberian "food as art" creations from the open air kitchen. Chef Mendes is a handsome, dynamic, ubiquitous presence in his kitchen. His staff acts in unison with him and watching them all in action is to witness a highly stylized ballet of arms, legs, pots, pans and ovens all functioning at the highest level.
We were invited by Chris Lauber, the youthful General Manager, to sample some of the most exciting cuisine in the city. We entered the restaurant and past a small, but very active bar and some individual tables. We were seated us in a section of the dining room adjacent to the open air kitchen and a long stairway leading to a second floor dining area.
After reviewing the menu , we chose an 8 course chef's tasting menu:
We began our Iberian dining experience with: "Petiscos" the portuguese equivalent of spanish tapas.
- A large bowl of Gazpacho "Alentejana- made with pickled rock shrimp, gooseberry, and wild herbs. Aldea serves this dish by first filling the bowl with the delicious herbs, gooseberry and and rock shrimp and then pouring the liquid from a beautiful decanter. The Gazpacho was visually exciting and a taste delight
-Octopus and potato- made in an octopus broth, tomato, soffrito and coriander. Dining on this dish changed my perception of Octopus as a delicacy which was both filling and enjoyable.
-Next on our seafood journey was a Portuguese baby squid stew made with chorizo, cod roe and ginger. Interesting and beautifully plated.
Dayboat Scallop- Our favorite dish on the tasting menu...made with baby beet, oyster mushroom, and husk tomatoes.- The Scallop was large pearlessent, with just a hint of it being grilled.
Bacalhau Gommes DeSa- A ample portion of salt cod casserole made with potato, onion and black olive.
Duck Breast- Our second most favorite dish made with delicately sliced blood red rare duck meat made with hen of the wood mushrooms, sunchoke, and red wine jus. Extraordinary in appearance and taste!
Chef Mendes then served a fabulous housemade honey sponge cake- with zimbro cheese, yogurt, crispy milk, and yuzu ice cream. The perfect sweet to end a fabulous culinary journey.
Aldea is a trailblazer with its innovative interpretation of portuguese dishes. Chef Mendes is a Michelin award winner and critically acclaimed for his "avante garde" cooking and style. The combination of Chef Mendes, a welcoming staff and a fantastic menu makes Aldea one of New York's top dining venues.
Aldea 31 West 17th Street (bet. 5th & 6th) tel: 212-675-7223
If you eat at Gato, you’ll notice that practically every table has kale-and-wild-mushroom paella on it. Bobby Flay is smart to offer an updated version of an old favorite: Who doesn’t love caramelized, crusty Bomba rice? Paella has always been popular, and Flay’s hot dish reminds Grub that there are plenty of other good, unconventional ones around town: Alex Raij makes a Valencian toasted-noodle paella, and at Cata, there’s a version with foie gras and duck confit. But here’s the snag: Since paella is most often served family-style, it can get pricey (especially when you add foie gras to it). Many New York restaurants offer several paellas, with varying prices, so we’ve ranked them by price, starting with the lowest possible option.
George Mendes once won Best Paella for his Arroz de Pato, even though it isn’t technically paella at all. He makes his paella-like Arroz de Pato with duck confit, chorizo, black olive, citrus puree, and duck cracklings.
PORTUGAL HAS BEEN a big influence in my personal and professional life. I’m from a Portuguese family, grew up in Connecticut eating Portuguese food and run a Portuguese-inflected restaurant in New York City. I’ve been to the country at least a half-dozen times—as a baby in the 1970s, as a teenager in the ’90s and as an adult. But my visit last July was by far the most profound.
The trip was the last of three focusing on discovery and weight gain—in other words, it was for cookbook research. My co-writer, Genevieve Ko, and I drove around Portugal for 10 days, eating at small, out-of-the-way establishments, the kinds of places only locals would know about (or sometimes even be able to find).
One of our first stops was Porto, home of Port wine. We walked the cobblestone streets and ate at a restaurant called A Grade. It felt like a tavern, with a small bar, wood benches and a television in the corner blaring the news. But a waiter dropped a small plate of bacalhau on our table—and as soon I put one of the crispy, golden-brown codfish fritters in my mouth, I knew this place was serious.
One of the specials was a dish of the tiniest deep-fried sardines, which you eat whole. The fish are rare, and each one was like a crunchy bite of ocean. The octopus was roasted in the oven with potatoes and melted in your mouth like butter. The potatoes were blistering hot; their smoky, intense flavor took me back to when I was a kid and my mother would roast fish and potatoes on Sunday afternoons.
We headed to the Alentejo region, just south of Lisbon, and took a tour of the Esporão winery, followed by lunch prepared by the vineyard chef. Gazpacho was served with fresh mint, marinated figs and crispy bread floating in it. We had bacalhau with crispy ham. But the coolest dish was a pork-neck confit that the chef had cooked overnight, then charred on a wood-burning grill. The lunch was elegant, and the flavors were so powerful and authentic to the region. I was reminded that you don’t need to buy prime pieces of meat to make a delicious meal.
That evening we dined at O Chico, which serves down-home Alentejo cooking. There was a soup made from purslane, and a dish of fava beans stewed with blood sausage and mint that blew me away. The owner (also the chef) wasn’t simply cooking fava beans. He dried fava beans in the pod, took them out of the pod, dried them some more, then cooked them without peeling them. They were funky and a total showstopper. We ate and drank and talked with the chef until the wee hours of the morning. He didn’t go to cooking school or train with anybody famous. He learned from his grandmother and through trial and error. “I can give you any recipe you want,” he said to me. “But I can’t give you my palate.”
“’I can give you any recipe you want, but I can’t give you my palate,’ he said.”
The next morning we drove to the Algarve region, aka the Portuguese Riviera. Our new friends at the winery had tipped us off about a restaurant called Villa Lisa, on the outskirts of Portimão. It was supposed to be a half-hour drive from the hotel, but it took us an hour and a half. Siri gave me bad directions—to the right number, the right street, but definitely not the right place. I stopped and asked a local, but he had no idea. I called the restaurant and they got us there—get back on the main road, get off at a so-called exit, go down a dirt road. When we arrived, we had a soup made with tiny baby clams, flecked with cilantro and a few drops of lime juice. There were beautiful potatoes that had been mashed with a ton of olive oil and wild oregano with the flowers still on it. As chefs, we often don’t know when to stop—we have to embellish, to add one or two more things. These dishes had three ingredients, sometimes just two, and yet they shined so brightly.
The highlight of the trip was going back to my family’s village. Ferreiros is about 2½ hours north of Lisbon. It’s small—about 2,000 inhabitants—and is full of Moorish and Roman buildings. It’s what you’d imagine the European village where your ancestors grew up looks like. When I was a kid, it would take five hours to get to the village from the airport. The final approach was an old dirt road; you would see donkeys pulling carts of grain—or, if it was wine-harvest season, taking grapes to the press.
For years I’d wanted to eat at a place in Ferreiros that is only open a few nights a week. The man who runs it, Joao “Faia” Martina, was born in the village, immigrated to the U.S. in the 1970s and became a cook. When I was growing up, he had a restaurant called O Faia that served the best Portuguese food in Danbury—the entire state, some said. Faia’s dishes, like arroz de marisco (“shellfish rice”) and a clam-and-pork combo that is Portugal’s answer to surf and turf, were among my first introductions to traditional cooking.
Faia retired and moved back to Portugal. He soon started cooking at the local meeting hall, the Cas do Povo, and now he operates the kitchen as his restaurant. Not like a place in New York—there’s a foosball table in the back, kids are always running around. And there is no menu; you sit down and tell the chef what you’re in the mood for and he tells you what’s come in fresh from the market that morning—grouper, sardines, octopus.
My meal there was an emotional experience. I had no idea, back when I was a kid and he was screaming in his kitchen, how Faia’s cooking would influence me—that the base of garlic, onion, bay leaf and paprika simmering in olive oil would make its way into my own cooking. And 20 years later, there I was in Ferreiros, biting into this cuttlefish preparation, just off the grill and still tasting of seawater, it was so damn fresh.
It’s a powerful thing to be a chef for so long, then discover this rustic, gutsy cooking style—and realize that it’s actually where you started out. That trip, I think, made me a better, braver cook. It taught me not to be preoccupied with appealing to a modern New York palate, not to be afraid to bring forth more regional and classical cooking, to dig deeper into my upbringing. To use my roots.
—As told to Sara Clemence
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