As I slowed my car and pointed towards the signage for Aldea, my passenger reminded me that in fact we drove by here 3 hours ago, on the way to Chelsea Market. I wondered how I missed it, not just earlier this afternoon, but the dozens of times I drove by in the past year.
17th Street between 5th and 6th Ave isn’t popular by foot. If it wasn’t for the Michelin Star, I probably would have never found this restaurant, much less make a reservation for a meal here. Even in my list of Michelin Star destinations, Aldea was one for the off-week, for the spontaneous dinner where I did not have to book, or budget in advance. Yes this might be unfair to Aldea, but there simply isn’t any buzz coming from the culinary world about this place. In the world of Iron Chefs and Top Chefs, just being a good chef no longer gets you noticed.
Still, here I was in front of a tall narrow space that reminded me of a townhouse. A very nice one at that, with high ceiling, and a second floor loft over looking the bar and entrance. At the back of the first floor space is the kitchen, and there’s also a chef’s table where you can eat and watch all of the action.
At the helm of this restaurant was Chef George Mendes, a native of Connecticut who has worked his way through the kitchens of Bouley, Alain Ducasse, Wallsé and Tocqueville. In 2009, he opened Aldea to pursue his own culinary goals. In a classy, but relaxed setting, Chef Mendes dishes out fine cuisine inspired by his Portuguese heritage.
There’s a $90 5-course tasting menu, or an a-la-carte option, where you can choose from small bites, items from the charcuterie, appetizers and entrees (separated into meats and fishes).
We started the meal with two small bites to share. The Bonito Tuna “Rillette”, which stands for a salted spread, was slightly too salty and rough in texture for my liking. The Sea Urchin Toast delivered sweet, rich flavors of sea urchin, which was also complemented nicely with cauliflower purée, mustard seed, and a dash of acidic lime juice.
Onwards to the appetizers, which was a tomato cucumber gazpacho poured into a wooden bowl at the table, submerging delicious balls of mozzarella and grilled cuttlefish. I’ve always loved gazpachos, and this was one of the best. On the other hand, the half lobster was a bit too much on the sweet side, and lacked the complex flavors of the cold soup.
Entreés were solid and well executed. The Arroz de Pato, or duck confit over rice, is one of the signature dishes at Aldea. The meat and chorizo had a nice smoky scent, but tasted slightly on the sweet side due to the tangerine and modest seasoning. The Striped Bass was perfectly cooked, as I expect most Michelin chefs to execute a faultless piece of fish, though the flavors did not leave a strong impression.
For desserts, we got the “Little Dreams”, which were like freshly baked doughnut holes with 3 dipping sauces: chocolate, caramel, and rhubarb. Despite the serious sugar high, the combination of the pastry with rhubarb was exquisit.
On the list of Michelin Star restaurants dominated by high profile celebrity chefs and their PR machines, Aldea is definitely a value and should not be missed. I enjoyed the experience as a whole, but there are aspects of the meal that kept it from leaving a stronger impression.
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