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Aldea

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  • Cuisine: Mediterranean
  • Vibe: Civilized
  • Occasion: Intimate date; business dinner; chef’s counter.
  • Don’t Miss: Sea urchin toast; calamari with squid ink and herb purée; escolar; arroz de pato.
  • Price: Appetizers, $9; entrées, $23; desserts, $9.
  • Reservations: Recommended
  • Phone: (212) 675-7223
  • Location: 31 W. 17th St., btwn. Fifth & Sixth Aves.

There’s not much to look at in Aldea, a restaurant that recently
opened in the Flatiron District. There’s no artwork on the walls, no
flashy furniture, just a scattering of blond wood tables and muted blue
banquettes.

It’s a long, narrow space with an open kitchen in the
back and a staircase leading to the upstairs dining room. The only
prominent flourish is a large cluster of acrylic tubes that dangle over
a six-seat chef’s counter right in front of the kitchen. I highly
suggest you sit at the counter or one of the tables in back, so you can
watch the chef at play.

Why is Aldea so plain? Maybe George Mendes
doesn’t want to distract you from his cooking. After all, he waited two
years to get this restaurant off the ground. Mendes has worked in a lot
of great kitchens with a lot of great chefs and cooked everything from
French to Austrian to American. But when you work for chefs like David Bouley or Alain Ducasse, your job is to cook their food in their style. Now, it’s Mendes’ turn to introduce his own style.

The menu at Aldea is wholly Mediterranean, inspired by the flavors of Portugal, Spain
and the sea. There’s sea urchin toast with cauliflower cream and sea
lettuce, and salty sardines from Portugal seasoned with Madeira raisins
and bitter almond milk. There’s a wonderful riff on paella made with
duck confit, rice, chorizo, black olives and crispy duck cracklin’s.
Sometimes, Mendes’ style is simple. Dry-cured Portuguese or Serrano
ham, garlicky, sautéed shrimp alhinho, or razor clams with ginger.

Sometimes,
it’s sophisticated and complex, like cuttlefish a la plancha with
coconut-curry foam, squid ink and herb purée. There’s a lot going on in
this dish – a lot of textures, seasonings and technique, and a lot
could go wrong. Yet, the cuttlefish comes alive in a playground of
harmonious flavors – an unctuous squid ink, a fragrant coconut-curry
foam and herb purée. I also had an unusually tender hanger steak topped
with a sunnyside-up egg and bone marrow marmalade, and sided by a
potato-oxtail terrine.

But there are some potholes in this menu. I was eager to try Mendes’
house-cured salt-cod – a Portuguese specialty called bacalao – but it
was a bland, poached letdown served in a listless smoked-jamon broth.
The roasted pork shoulder was tough and poorly paired with littleneck
clams and vegetable pickles. And the “jardin” was a yawn of a salad
with spring lettuce, figs and a few shavings of cheese. In fact, I
think the kitchen forgot to dress it with the port vinaigrette
advertised on the menu.

The wine list is unnecessarily
confusing. Instead of separating the wines by the glass from the wines
by the bottle, Aldea clumps them all together. The result is a roomful
of diners using their finger as a highlighter to sort through the
selection.

For dessert, take advantage of the house-made sorbets,
especially the chamomile and passionfruit. Or just order the chilled
rhubarb and strawberry soup, which comes with the passionfruit sorbet
and a eucalyptus panna cotta. Here’s what I like most about Aldea: It’s
a formal-looking, but plain restaurant, with informal prices and mostly
great food.

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