"" What's She Eating Now?: A Night at Aldea

Saturday, October 3, 2009

A Night at Aldea

New York is a busy place. In all the hustle and bustle of seemingly 27 hour days it’s easy to lose sight of things. Easy to let personal chores go unattended, easy to let personal relationships go un-nurtured. Every once in a while after Dan and I have been through a period where it seems like we have been all go-go-go, we pause and realize that while we have been around each other a lot, we are behind on our quality time so we plan a night to go on a date. After nearly five years this may sound silly, but I value these timeouts where we pick a special place, make a reservation, and look forward to a night where we stop to enjoy some good food and time together as we let New York just keep whizzing by us.

This past week we had a wonderful such date at Aldea. From the initial interaction with the reservationist all the way through the hostess bidding us good night, the experience was truly a pleasure. The restaurant is an oddly narrow space but the way it is laid out the tables seem almost private once you’re seated. Feng shui elements such as tree branches in the wall recesses provide a calmness and the music, set at an ideal volume and including the likes of the Ramones and the Clash, let you know right away the place is not stuffy.

Aldea is perfect for an intimate dinner, but once you see the menu you will wish you had ten friends with you so you could get one of everything. After much evaluation and debate, Dan and I started with 3 items off the “small bites” section of the menu and one appetizer. The little neck clams were small tastes of the ocean on the half shell. The briny-ness was not to Dan’s liking but as I enjoyed them I could hear waves crashing and seagulls flying overhead and I pictured for a moment that we were at this spectacularly beautiful beach we once visited in Portugal, coincidentally the ancestral country of Aldea’s chef, George Mendes. The manipulation was minimal but the flavor very distinct, a feat in my book.

Next was the Knollcrest Farm Egg which is essentially a very sophisticated scramble with bacalao, black olives and potato served in the egg’s shell with a small wooden spoon. It's a good collection of tastes and deceptively hearty for such a dainty presentation. I’ll come back to the last small bite and for the moment skip to the appetizer which was a baby cuttlefish with caramelized lychee, mentaiko (a type of fish roe) and squid ink. Sounds fussy but actually quite simple. The overall flavors of the dish were a little subtle but the caramelized lychees were beguiling. I expected overly sweet and goopy but the taste was the best essence of lychee and the texture was almost pillowy.

The piece de resistance of the starters was the Sea Urchin Toast. I have seen critic Gael Green bristle at the $9 price tag for this “small bite” but it didn’t phase me. Uni is simply expensive and not only is it a decent portion as far as uni goes, but it is an innovative creation that includes cauliflower cream, sea lettuce, and lime according to the menu, but it really seems like there is more to it than that. In a perfect world uni would be cheap and I would be 5’ 11’’, but given that’s not the case, I think the price is fair and the dish one of the most wonderful things I have ever eaten. I even (half) joked with Dan that depending on the dessert options I may order another to finish the meal.

Second Course

I always manage expectations when it comes to entrees. They seldom are as good as the appetizers and they often make me wonder why restaurants don’t serve dinner backwards. Aldea, however, bucked this trend. I had the sea-salted Chatham cod with market cranberry and fava beans and a lemon-basil mussel broth. The fish was cooked perfectly and was plated with colors and shapes and lines that made it beautiful and interesting without overdoing it. The beans were almost like a side of stew with mussels and was so good I didn’t even bother to try and figure out how they made it, I just enjoyed it.

Dan had the lamb. There are few things I enjoy more than uni but I must say I liked the lamb even more. The loin cut of meat had a just-so hint of gaminess and everything on the plate was deliberate and necessary. Small flecks of goat cheese, a half a fig, some root vegetables. It was complex in its preparation but somehow simple in that it all made so much sense. Its appearance, smell, and taste are all still with me.

Along with our meal we had some really nice wines. When presented with the list upon being seated, we were delighted to see a bevy of good options by the glass priced very attractively and a nice selection of bottles that were equally approachable. We started with two glasses of white (a Verdejo and a Viognier, $10 each) and then shared a 2006 Porca de Murça ($36) which was lovely and did the challenging job of pairing well with the fish and the lamb. The mark-up is in there for sure but I nonetheless applaud the artfully compiled wine list that has many gently priced good quality selections, ensuring that every diner, no matter their budget, can find something perfect to accompany their meal.

And Then Dessert

Dan usually starts losing his attention span after the entrées but I told him before we left the house that we would be ordering dessert and he was not to ask for the check as he usually does the moment he finishes his entrée. After the delight he experienced at Aldea, he may forever change his ways. The Chevre Cheese Parfait with poached plums, nectarines, and honey ice

cream was exceptional. The parfait had the appearance of a marshmallow turned on its side and tasted wonderful on its own, but even better when combined with all the carefully thought out elements on the plate. It was an original dessert in every aspect from ingredients to textures to visual appeal but sticking to the basics, it was just really good.

In addition to the meal I enjoyed watching Chef George Mendes and his team working in their open kitchen. When I say open kitchen I don’t just mean there is a counter over which you can see into the kitchen, I mean the kitchen is set up almost like a performance space. You’re meant to watch. And like the food and the dining room and everything else about Aldea, the movements about the kitchen are clever and purposeful but with a wonderful air of calm. And how much, you are wondering, does this transportation to a place and time where worry and disappointing food does not exist? Our experience tallied about $90 per person with tip. Aspirational, yet attainable and a good value for such an outstanding show.

Aldea is a great restaurant for many reasons. The food is nothing short of remarkable, but more than that the experience is savor worthy. To me it’s a comfortable version of fine dining where you can enjoy real culinary delights but in a relaxed setting where you don’t feel self-conscious about sitting up straight and being on your best behavior. And what may just make a regular out of me is that Aldea is special, but not the kind of special that one waits for an anniversary or a promotion to visit. It’s the kind of special you go to when you need a break from tough, indifferent New York. When just what you need is some welcoming hospitality, superb plates and a check that lets you also give your nerves the night off.

31 West 17th Street
212- 675-7223
Lunch: Mon - Fri (11:30am - 2:00pm)
Dinner: Mon - Thu (5:30pm - 11:00pm) Fri & Sat (5:30pm - 12:00am)


  1. Great recommendation, but is it better than Momofuko Ko?? Sounds cliche but that place still holds the top rank in my book for now...

  2. Thanks for your comment, Karen! As for Ko, I must confess I have not been. I was unable to get a table when Ko was $85 per person. I hung in and tried even when they raised the price to $100 with no luck. But now at $125 I think Ko has priced me out of its market. The only place I can see myself paying that much to dine on a stool at a counter is a good sushi establishment.

    That said, my impression is that these two places are very different. At Ko, Chang and company are trying to dazzle you with course after course, after course after course and so on. Its a gasto-marathon aiming to impress and they pull all the strings. Aldea is different in that Mendes aims for you to have a wonderful experience and the dazzling and impressing happens inadvertently. That, and you are in comfortable seats and you choose your own adventure with the food and wine. So it depends on if you're in the mood to place your fate in the chef's (I'm sure very capable) hands and have the focus be on a parade of plated surprises, or if you want to have fun plotting your own course and enjoy a well rounded overall experience. But again, not managing to click fast enough at 10 am this is just an impression. I recommend you try Aldea then let us know how you think they stack up :)