Feeling Ducky at Aldea
Sitting at Aldea's chef's bar, I start to think that ordering the duck rice was a very good idea. From my perch, which is practically inside the kitchen, I spot fat duck breasts bobbing in a sous-vide cooker. Duck confit and duck cracklings then emerge from a refrigerator. The rice goes into a small, hot paella pan, and gets smashed down with a spoon so that a maximum surface area crisps up. The pan is then shoved over to George Mendes, the executive chef, who painstakingly scrapes up every last crunchy grain stuck to the bottom of the pan.
Finally, the duck rice, or arroz de pato, arrives in a big white bowl; a simple dish, it isn't trying to be anything but delicious. The rice is, by turns, chewy, crunchy, and soft, slicked with duck fat. There are shreds of the duck confit, a few pale petals of the most ducky duck breast, slices of chorizo, and a sprinkling of the duck cracklings. Dots of sticky apricot sauce on the side seem out of place until I mix it in and realize it's a take on duck sauce. This is not health food, kids. It's the kind of dish that makes you stop and close your eyes just to concentrate on how soulfully good it tastes.
Aldea—a new "modern Iberian" restaurant—has been waiting in the wings for two years. Mendes, the son of Portuguese immigrants, trained under David Bouley and, more recently, worked at Wallsé and Tocqueville, before leaving to open his own spot, driven by the flavors of his childhood. But because of various snafus with city permits and construction delays, the restaurant's opening kept getting postponed. Now, it has flung its doors open wide, and is eager to please—albeit to a fault sometimes. It happens that, on another visit, we are sitting at one of the plush gray booths waiting for our appetizers, and are asked, at least 10 times, if we would like some more bread. We joke that if one more person inquires, we should just take the damn stuff. They do, and we do, taking small bites to make sure we don't run out and start the cycle all over again.
31 West 17th Street
But it's also true that because Aldea was so delayed, the restaurant feels like a place that's been open for much longer than it actually has been. The tentativeness in service and food that characterizes many new restaurants is nowhere to be found. Instead, the food is confident and the servers know the menu inside and out. Surprisingly, there are 18 bottles under $30 on the thoughtful wine list, ranging from France to Austria to Spain, including several excellent deals from Portugal. One night, when we tried to order a $31 bottle of white Burgundy, our server paused for a moment and steered us instead toward a Portuguese Arinto for $28. It's refreshing (and rare) to have a server push a less expensive bottle of wine, and the tart Arinto went well with the food. The space matches the restaurant's self-assured feel—the narrow room is adult and minimalist, all blue-gray and white and squared-off lines.
As is the current custom, the menu will change with the seasons. During my visits, it was dubbed the spring market menu. Indeed, among the sardines, olives, chorizo, and salt cod, there's a generous sprinkling of seasonal ingredients like ramps, asparagus, morels, and peas. The offerings are divided into petiscos (the Portuguese word for "snacks"), charcuterie, appetizers, and mains.
The best of the petiscos is the sea urchin toast. The creamy orange urchin is balanced on a small crisp, along with a slick of wasabi cream, and topped with a mini forest of green and white seaweed. The ultra-richness of the sea urchin is livened up by the up-your-nose wasabi. Razor clams grilled on the plancha are admirably tender and briny, but the dish of ramps, crispy pig's ear, and julienned green apple suffered from the ramp stems being cooked to watery limpness.
Bacalao, or salt cod, shows up often, which is only natural on a Portuguese-Spanish menu. One of the petiscos is a softly scrambled egg, mixed with tiny dices of black olive, which is spooned back into the hollow eggshell and topped with bacalao foam. And a main dish features house-cured salt cod, beautifully meaty and almost gelatinous, served with white and green asparagus and morels, which sponge up the smoked jamón broth. Salt cod is a delicious and traditional seafood preparation—but Atlantic cod is extremely overfished. However, Mendes says his cod is sourced from Icelandic farms. "Because of my heritage," he said, referencing his Portuguese ancestry, "cod is always going to be on the menu." The Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch says that Icelandic cod is a "good alternative," so, for the time being, you can enjoy Mendes's salt cod relatively guilt-free.
Seafood is really Aldea's specialty, and Mendes's upscale iterations have their roots in homey traditional dishes. Sardines, common to the Iberian Peninsula but underappreciated in the U.S., are given due respect. Each fat, silvery-skinned specimen is sandwiched between two crisps of brioche, and augmented with Madeira-soaked raisins, bitter almond milk, and lemon zest. Shrimp browned on the grill arrive in a red heap, suffused with a delicious smoked paprika sauce, and a main dish of chubby, seared scallops with an unusual farro-cucumber risotto is nearly perfect, the scallops almost impossibly sweet and caramelized. They taste even better when you've watched the only female chef on the line (who looks like a Vermeer portrait: pale, big-eyed, and austere in her white cap) carefully sear them.
There are only occasional missteps. Mendes's cooking is extremely skilled, but certain dishes feel by-the-book. Chicken stuffed with foie gras is tasty enough, but it lacks the soul of the duck rice and the sardines. The spring consommé cleverly references Spain's status as the birthplace of molecular gastronomy—clear, golden soup peppered with jellied spheres of mushroom essence—but the flavor gets lost in the high-tech pop and gush.
The moral of the story: Stick to the water beasties (including duck), sit at the chef's bar, and, whatever you do, don't refuse the bread.
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