I loved the part in the movie Shark Tale when Robert DeNiro, voicing over the mobsteresque head shark insists that his mild-mannered shark son Jack Black “Eat the Shrimp!” And way before DeNiro, Ferran Adria also insisted in what he has cited as the best article ever written about El Bulli, that you too should eat the shrimp:
Ferran: “You have to suck this…”
Esquire: “You mean the head?”
Ferran: “Yes, the head. If I can describe in one word the taste of the sea, it’s sucking the head of this prawn. At home, my parents sucked the head. I tasted it and comprehended it. Just suck it.”
He took the head, put the open end to his lips, and crushed the shell until everything in it (brain and viscera, bits of meat and shell) had been expelled into his mouth, caramel-colored liquid dribbling down his chin. He savored it for a long moment, his eyes closed, and he seemed to have reached some kind of ecstasy. When he opened his eyes, it was my turn. […] It was a profound and powerful taste, oddly sublime, the thick liquid; the essence of this thing was, yes, salty, but also deeply evolved. It was cognac and candy, bitter and sweet, plankton and fruit. It was the whole chemical history of the world in one bite.
Ferran: “This is taste. Not the taste, it is taste. You can’t explain this. […] In a restaurant like this, we can eat the head. Spanish people find it provocative. They have an affection for it. At El Bulli, no, people are not prepared to eat the head. Ninety-nine percent of the people won’t eat the head. It’s not permitted in high cuisine. (He took another prawn in his hand, pulled off the head, and crushed it. This time the caramel-colored liquid pooled on the plate before him.) But if I pour this over food in my kitchen, I’ve changed the context. I can do this and people will eat it. People will eat it and taste the Mediterranean.”
He swiped a finger through the puddle of prawn nectar, brought it to his mouth, and licked it. “Magico,” he said.
– Michael Paterniti, Esquire, July 2001:
- Brilliant of Ferran to change the context of shrimp heads into a sauce.
- Brilliant of Paterniti to perceive that Ferran’s gift relies in the conceptualization of food. Just as André Courrèges (designer of this year’s special edition Evian bottle, among other pretty things…) got credit for the miniskirt even though the Egyptians wore them thousands of years prior, Ferran is often the first to notice and popularize concepts in the world of food. Along with world-changing tools like the introduction of foams made from more than milk or the ability to create a self-encased yolk of things other than egg (“spherification”), this notion of innovation should also include small victories like the unlikely use of shrimp heads in haute cuisine.
- Brilliant of George Mendes to be the only chef to give a shrimp head the respect that it deserves in signature dish Shrimp Alinho at his restaurant Aldea.
In my interview with Used York City, I told you that while Le Bernardin was the best restaurant in New York, Aldea is nonetheless my favorite. There’s actually an interesting symbiotic relationship between the two. They both specialize in fish and seafood. Bernardin’s (now former) superstar dessert chef Michael Laiskonis’ wife is the General Manager at Aldea. No, better yet, I’ll draw on my background in economics to describe it best with the Pareto Principle. 80/20. Le Bernardin is perfect. Aldea is just about perfect. In fact, it’s trying so hard to be perfect that there’s an unmistakable energy about the place – in a much, much friendlier atmosphere, both for the soul and wallet. Forget white tablecloths, the most exciting six seats in New York right now are at the counter overlooking George Mendes’ calm, organized kitchen and staff which buzz with excitement six nights a week. Curtains up at 5:30pm – the show is the best I’ve seen on or off Broadway since The Merchant of Venice with Al Pacino.
Just like in Flushing, you really don’t want to miss out on the little starters, or “pesticos” as they are called at Aldea. Pesticos? Portugal’s answer to tapas. Which reminds me – a little context: Chef George Mendes is a first generation American, born to Portuguese parents in New Jersey. In the world of chefdom, his resume reads like a list of degrees from one Ivy League school after another – mentor David Bouley, time spent with Alain Passard, Alain Ducasse, Martin Berastegui… At Aldea, George combines the most exacting and innovative of French and Spanish techniques with flavors and ingredients true to his Portuguese heritage. Exciting. Nothing else like it in New York. Anyway, back to the Pesticos: The Knoll Crest Farm Egg ($8) is a must-have, where a hollowed egg shell is filled with George’s take on the Portuguese classic Bacalau A Bras – soft and unctuous scrambled eggs with shreds of salt cod and matchstick potatoes for crunch, prepared better than anywhere I’ve tasted it in Portugal. I would go and eat just this, which of course you can do during Aldea’s lunch service when it is available as a main course ($19).
Next, picture Rene Magritte’s legendary painting “Ceci n’est pas une pipe.” At Aldea, the exquisite oil-cured sardines bare absolutely no resemblance to your recollection of the strong and fishy-tasting cheap sardines from a can. Oh no, this is no ordinary sardine. If you’re lucky, the ever-changing menu will feature as a pestico a lone glistening sardine mounted on a brick-shaped throne of crunchy brioche, crowned with bright orange pearls of salmon caviar ($10). A true pleasure to savor, this dish really messes with your mind and mouth – expecting little bones notoriously characteristic of cheap sardines, you find here a luxurious texture smooth as silk; expecting a strong and fishy aroma, you find instead a neutral to slightly sweet canvas on which the delicate flavor imparted by top quality olive oil and fresh popping salmon roe can be appreciated, as if they were together a true revelation. Sometimes you’ll find instead sardines as an appetizer ($16), which are not quite as composed when presented instead with breadcrumbs (“migas”) and micro herbs but nearly as enjoyable nonetheless.
Also featured in the appetizer section are shrimp seared on a plancha (Spanish flat top grill) in a sauce derived from the liquids cooked from their heads – Shrimp Alinho ($16). Don’t miss it. Don’t try to share it. And when you’re almost done eating it, call the bus boy over for more bread to mop up what’s left in the bowl. I won’t even try to describe the awesomeness of this shrimp head sauce because Ferran does it best.
Main courses – this is primarily a restaurant that specializes in fish and seafood, so I’d recommend that you pick one of the four options on offer that night, usually scallops, a cod offering and two white-fleshed fish based on market availability. You can’t go wrong, but favorites from recent memory include seared monkfish (aka poor man’s lobster) with a shellfish broth and seared squid shavings ($29). Cod is also always expertly prepared. The menu currently features a sea salted Chatham cod with cauliflower and black olive ($28), where a more timid flavor profile vs. the monkfish/squid/shellfish combination is exchanged for a more simple and luxurious piece of fish, which flakes into perfect shards at the slight of one’s fork.
If you’re not going to listen to me on the seafood recommendation, then order the duck rice ($27) – a heavier option, but highly satisfying nonetheless especially in the chill of NY winter. Here, grilled duck is laid across a pillow of paella-style rice with the perfect interplay of bite (rare duck meat) with crunch (shards of crispy skin); salty (chorizo and olive) with sweet (orange coulis).
A first for Treasured Tables: a little chat about wine. This is actually key to the appeal at Aldea. Big gold star for the sommelier. There’s an unmistakable focus on the Iberian peninsula, where top quality 90+ point Spanish and Portuguese wines can be poured at the restaurant for what some equivalent French or Italian wine may cost at retail. Although the list is limited to a double-sided legal size page, the depth and thoughtfulness of the somelier’s selections is nonetheless quite impressive. Even within Portugal, you’ll find a couple of options from the deservedly flagship region of Duero, as well as up-and-coming areas such as Alentejo near Lisbon which tends to produce lighter and fruitier wines compared to Duero, but still perfectly suitable for a dry wine drinker. The perfect example is the red Esporao Reserva, which Gary Vaynerchuk at the Wine Library raves about as a 92-point wine and one of his absolute best values retailing for $18. At Aldea, the Esporao will set you back $55. A 3x mark-up in and of itself is very fair for a restaurant of this calibre in New York; moreover, I’m happy to pay Aldea the differential just for the introduction to such an amazing bottle. You’ll find other such wine stories at Aldea like a beginner-level vinho verde, Twin Vines ($40 at Aldea, $8 or less at retail). Although this may be one of the cheapest retailing bottles on offer at an American Michelin-starred restaurant, it is nonetheless a discovery like most other wines of this variety. Picked from the region just south of the Portuguese border from Basque country in Spain where the legendary Txakoli is king (and retails for 2-3x more), vinho verde offers a similar bone-dry, grassy mineralesque palate, which is light on the alcohol and offers a slight effervescence, sharing some commonalities with the very refined French category of Sancerre. While a 5x+ mark-up on this one may tilt toward aggressive, I’d prefer to focus on my admiration for Aldea’s ability to offer a perfectly drinkable and frankly quite enjoyable wine at the $40 level. Personally, I think Vidigal which retails for a dollar more at Sherry Lehmann (a great wine store with a very knowledgeable staff located on 59th and Park) is a little more rounded and would be more appropriate for Aldea; however, I really do admire the fact that they’re introducing New York to a little known yet quintessential paring with seafood as enjoyed all across Portugal.
If there is any real estate left for dessert, try the sonhos ($10) – which translates to little dreams… of puffy sugar-coated dough, served alongside seasonal dips of chocolate, caramel and fruit. Preferring to stick with the salty vs. sweet, I found the cheese selection ($12) to be very well thought out and a great end to the meal.
Aldea is in a class by itself. In recommending Aldea, I hesitate to add any other names in the honorable mentions category below in the same breath, so take my advice when I say: go to Aldea now. George Mendes is unquestionably going to become the next Eric Ripert or Daniel Boulud. George already cooks far more sophisticated, interesting and temporally relevant food than Daniel, and he is currently doing it with way more humble ingredients to help keep prices palatable. Either that or he is just showing off. As we already discussed, although the two may have the same gastronomic value, Michelin inspectors are still very old-school so it’s inevitably a lot harder to get a Michelin star serving skate vs. Dover Sole. They’ve already raised prices about 20% since opening (although more noticeably on the wine list) and don’t tell this to George, but there is probably more juice to squeeze given the quality and consistency of the food coming out of his kitchen. The closest restaurant I can think of to Aldea is Ferreira in Montreal, perennial favorite of Formula One race car drivers when they and hundreds of thousands of their followers descend upon the city every June. Ferreira has been around for a long time, charges a lot more (amplified effect given NYC is a much more expensive city) and its owner Carlos Ferreira has received numerous awards and honors from both the Portuguese government and local community. George Mendes once told me that Carlos helped inspire him to open up on his own and that he aspired to one day be as good as Ferreira. That was a couple of years ago, and his food was already blowing Ferreira’s out of the water. Now it’s even better and I can’t wait to taste all the new and exciting things that George will be delighting us with in years to come.
WHERE: Aldea Flatiron: 31 West 17th Street, between 5th and 6th $80-130 per person Rating: AG’s favorite in the city. Period.
Honorable mentions in the nouveau Iberian / seafood category:
Tertulia West Village: 359 6th Avenue, between West 4th and Washington Place $50-100 per person Rating: Bring your battering ram and expect to wait longer than it will take you to eat, but your patience will be rewarded with Seamus Mullen’s treasures from one of the most authentic tapas bar experiences in the city.
Le Bernardin Midtown West: 155 West 51st, between 6th and 7th $200+ per person Rating: Perfection at the ultimate sanctuary of seafood.
Gastroarte (fka: Graffit) Upper West Side: 141 West 69th Street, between Broadway and Columbus $40-70 per person (tapas bar) / $70-120 per person (dining room) Rating: Stalwart on NYC’s short list of most underrated restaurants. Service, however, can be hit or miss. To be discussed at length in a future review…
By: Adam Gross