Braced for the evening ahead, my parents and I arrived in Flatiron (Urbanspoon says Chelsea, but I'm calling it Flatiron) for our meal. Inside was a narrow room with a bar stretching back towards Mendes prevailing over the open kitchen (with plenty of tables surrounding him upstairs and downstairs). He was just in view from our table at the very end of the banquette at the foot of the steps (request actual kitchen seating as opposed to our ghetto view).
We ordered a bottle of red wine from Portugal (whose name I can't remember) and started browsing the menu. Like nearly every other restaurant to open in NYC in the past two years, Aldea has a snacks section. Here they're called "petiscos." I'm really not complaining, since who doesn't love snacks?
Marinated Iberian olives and roasted Marcona almonds are the ideal way to start a meal. An orange rind nestled among the olives added a pleasant citrusy zing, while my parents and I when to town on the well-seasoned almonds (I stuck my hand in the bowl to scare away my germaphobe mother and get more for myself, because I'm a dick like that).
Sea urchin was a no-brainer. Rusted orange lobes rested in a cauliflower puree atop a thin cracker. The creaminess of the urchin and puree gave way to the spicy bite of mustard seeds and the cooling sea lettuce.
Our final snack pre-appetizer to arrive was the Fermin lomo de Bellota (you know, that expensive Iberican ham finished on acorns you've been hearing so much about). The funky ham was complemented by the accompanying baguette covered in a tomato jam, but tasted even better wrapped around a few of the almonds.
With our pre-meal snacks ruthlessly devoured, it was time for appetizers. Mussel soup was our first hint that Mendes isn't wed to strictly Portugese flavors. Faintly Thai, the soup tasted strongly of ginger and garlic, with a slight spiciness mellowed by coconut broth. According to my mother, this was the dish she most wanted to try (good move). She ate all the mussels and gave me the remainder of the broth to finish. Even through my stuffed nose and Sudafed haze, I could taste the quality of the fish stock.
My dad ordered "Shrimp Alhinho,"which consisted of plump, high quality shrimp with pimenton. The dish tasted mostly of smokey paprika, with the pool of delicious spicy oil providing ideal lubrication for our bread.
Slow-poached egg with truffles, green garlic broth, bacon, sausage and chanterelles was the only real miss of the night. While these ingredients obviously sound great on paper, the dish didn't really come together. With so much strong, similar flavors, everything tasted fine individually, but it was difficult to get a bite with every ingredient.
Sorry if my crappy picture makes it look worse.
Like my mother with her mussel soup, I knew even before I glanced at the menu that Arroz de Pato would be my main course. I'd hyped the dish up in my mind as much as the famed bone marrow and octopus fusilli at Marea. And like that dish, Arroz de Pato exceeded even my unreasonable expectations. Likely one of my favorite dishes of the year. Mendes assaults you with duck: confit, perfectly cooked duck breast and most importantly: the best duck cracklin's I've ever eaten (I know, it's a small sample size).
This is paella-- yet I I haven't even described the rice. A pile of it was infused with plenty of duck flavor and the crunchy texture of the soccarat was enlivened (as if it needed it) by fried pucks of chorizo and soft, salty olives. Served with a smear of tart apricot sauce, it reminded me of eating Chinese fried rice with mustard.
Due to my impaired senses, I honestly remember very little of my parents' main course. My dad's large piece of Bev Eggleston pork belly (with razor clams) was covered in a sweet glaze whose specific flavor was too subtle for my messed up nose to detect. Perhaps recalling the more traditional "Carne de Porco Alentehana," which were were served at the old-school Portugese restaurant Madeira in Providence, Rhode Island.
All I remember about my mothers' Creekstone Farm's Hanger steak is the strong hit of curry powder, which cut through even my incredibly stuffy nose. Looking at the menu, it appears this dish has since been seasonally updated-- subbing in pumpkin seed, piri piri pepper and eggplant.
As much as I loved the Arroz con Pato, I could barely finish it. As such, dessert was probably unnecessary, but, in the interest of full coverage, we ordered Sonhos "little dreams." I'll call them beignets, but I can't be sure. They came with dishes of apple cider caramel, spiced chocolate and concord grape jelly and happen to be a great way to end a meal (along with some coffee).
Our meal at Aldea was impressive. Even through my sickness, certain flavors like paprika, curry and duck (duck's a flavor) had penetrated through my haze to stimulate my weakened taste buds. For now, I can only imagine how much better a meal at Aldea would be if I were healthy and able to taste the full spectrum of George Mendes' cooking. Next time.