Aldea, 31 W 17th St, 212-675-7223
Price range: $21-$35 Rating:4L's
After two years of rumor and hushed assurances, former Bouley and Tocqueville cook George Mendes has opened his love letter to the Iberian Peninsula. The airy bi-level space — a study in blonde wood, white walls and striped glass — strikes a charmingly intimate chord, in spite of an artistic hanging centerpiece of 400 clear acrylic rods and a stark, silent open kitchen.
And what comes out of that kitchen is no less high design. Chef Mendes has crafted a menu, hewing closely to the fads of the moment, that manages again to walk a fine line, being at once affected and endearing. These trends — a charcuterie heading, molecular gastronomy, farm provenance, staccato lists of ingredients — somehow work in this Iberian mold. Take this listing from the Petiscos (Small Bites) section: Rick's Catskill Mt. Ramps, crisped pig ear, apple, cumin, yogurt ($7). Pretentious, yes, but delightful. The garlic and grass overtones are, at first, at odds with the rich fatty crunch of the pork, then meld and avoid becoming overbearing with crisp, tart apple slices. The cumin yogurt lends what would be a straightforward New American dish an exotic and uncertain origin. Spring consommé ($11) also encapsulates one of the season's rare, romanticized treats, the morel. Al dente peas and chorizo round out the flavors, but the real star of the dish, and what makes it feel precious and inorganic, is a mushroom "ravioli," a basic molecular gastronomy technique that transforms a liquid — in this case a superconcentrated mushroom broth — into a sphere that gushes and dissolves at first bite.
Aldea's Portuguese roots are clear in the kitchen's facility with seafood. Scallops were ocean-fresh, mid-rare and well seared, as expected, paired with faro risotto, cucumber and orange, a refined, adult dish that allowed no room for whimsy, coming off as distressingly staid. Escolar was the star of the night, the fatty, hard-to-digest flesh creating exuberant textural and flavor contrasts with chickpeas, neon veggies and an arbois wine sauce. However, the portion was too large and, as our waitress was unaware, even largish entrée quantities of this fish can cause gastric distress.
Aldea, a cool space with a well-heeled crowd, hovers between authentic and self-conscious, unsure if eating is a visceral or intellectual exercise. But no such judgment can be reserved for the waitstaff — intuitive and charming while rocking severe haircuts — and a wine list featuring under-heralded grapes and small producers running the gamut of prices. In all, Aldea is an oasis from dumbed-down flavor profiles and derivative design — just don't take the experience too seriously.