The Royal Order of Iberians

06/24/2009 4:00 AM |

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.