Tasting menus are ubiquitous in New York City, and they’re frequently a good way to sample the breadth and creativity of a chef’s work, if only because you’re able to traipse through the same dishes you’d order à la carte for less than you’d spend ordering them individually. But as restaurants evolve, many chefs are rethinking what they’re offering on their prix fixe lists and getting more creative. Case in point: Aldea’s George Mendes just trotted out a Brazilian tasting menu at his Portuguese restaurant, the first in a series that will highlight culinary traditions of former Portuguese colonies around the world.
We caught up with Mendes, who talked about his inspiration, what cuisine he’s considering next, and a favorite dish on the current tasting list.
Tell us about your connection to the Portuguese world.
My parents immigrated in 1970 from Portugal, and I was born in Connecticut. I’m a first-generation American, and Portuguese is my first language. I still speak it fluently. My mom cooked Portuguese dishes for my family, and that’s what guided me into cooking. When I graduated high school, didn’t want to sit still, so I enrolled in the Culinary Institute. I opened Aldea in 2009 with a Portuguese menu.
What was the inspiration behind this menu?
Aldea has always had a tasting menu, but we decided to dedicate and pay homage to former Portuguese colonies around the world and bring on different flavors. Aldea is a free-spirited, global place. I wanted to challenge myself and the rest of the team with new flavor profiles and a new experience while staying in the realm of Portuguese-inspired dishes.
So how are you doing that?
We’re highlighting different Portuguese regions around the world. We’ll focus on Brazil for the next few months, and then we’ll change over in the fall to probably Goa in India, and then we’ll eventually move on to other places like Mozambique and Southeast Asia.
Why did you start with Brazil?
I’ve always been attracted to the flavors; I love coconut milk, yucca root, and cachaça. Plus, it plays well in the summer.
How did you build the menu?
I did a lot of research and visited Brazilian and Portuguese markets and stores. I read through old Brazilian cookbooks. One of my bartenders is Brazilian, and he has a lot of knowledge. There was a lot of eating in Queens. We’re not changing the entire restaurant–we’re just offering five to seven dishes inspired by Brazil. So I’m not making myself execute with authenticity; I’m going in the same vein or philosophy of Aldea and reinterpreting and refining.
I’m really excited about the moqueca. It’s a Brazilian stew made with palm oil, onions and bell peppers, coconut milk, and fish stock. You can cook and simmer any kind of fish in that, but we’re focusing on lobster. So it’s this Brazilian stew with vegetables from the Greenmarket and lobster from Nova Scotia. It’s a really new flavor profile.
The current iteration of the tasting menu rolled out this week and is available every night the restaurant is open. It costs $95.