Aldea - wow (long-ish)
The easy part is the conclusion: I have not been served a better or more enjoyable series of dishes than the ones I enjoyed at Aldea last night. Each bite featured explosions of flavors and textures so complex that I'm having as much reliving them as I did consuming them. It'd be fair to say that I was blown away.
We were seated at the 4 person Chef's table in the rear of the restaurant. The position allowed us a front row seat for what was an entertaining display of the efficient preparation and brilliant cooking of George Mendes and his crew. Many have described Aldea's space as bland or lacking in personality but I'd argue that the austerity is intentional so that the focus is on the food (though even if the walls were aflame the food would overshadow the decor). Regardless, the seating and scene were very nice for our purposes (eating) and I'd highly recommend getting yourself back to the Chef's table if possible.
Ok, the food. We started with the small bites: sea urchin toast, pork belly, Knollcrest egg and Jamon Serrano. The Sea Urchin toast was incredible. The flavor combination of lime, cauliflower and a punch of wasabi complemented the sea urchin's distinct flavor beautifully. The texture of the toast with the sea urchin was a great asset in making up the perfect 3-4 bites. The pork belly is served in three portions, each covered with a razor thin slice of apple atop. The pork was a great mix of fat and rich pork flavor, and the apple - pork combo, while an predictable flavor concept, was smartly crafted. The Serrano and egg, while very tasty, lagged behind in flavor of the urchin and pork belly. On another menu you may come back for the Serrano but here it was simply another bite.
For appetizers we opted for the Shrimp Alinho and Baby Cuttlefish. The flavor of the shrimp is intense in a good way. The first bite is a blast of smoky heat with hints of the more familiar shrimp appetizers garlicky essence. The reaction to the first bite was almost as enjoyable as the dish itself. The bite was followed by the diner sitting back, putting down the fork, smiling and then emitting a deep exhale. Like I said, the flavor is intense. The cuttlefish was also terrific and a complete 180 from the flavors in the shrimp. It's much more subtle and sweet. There was so much going on with the sauce: the squid ink and the lychee and the hint of coconut and the roe, I enjoyed each bit a little bit differently.
For entrees we went with the Arroz de Pato, the hanger steak and the lamb. Enough has been written about the Arroz de pato that I won't spend too much time waxing about the taste but I will say that the dish is worth the hype--the duck cracklings alone are worth a visit. Mr. Mendes should bag those things and sell them like pork rinds. The steak was perfectly prepared and exhibited a richness of flavor you always hope to get out of a hanger but rarely receive. The lamb dish was tender and delicious but the pear accent really made the dish unique and memorable.
The desserts were laughably delicious. The Sonhos (airy, donut-like balls of goodness) include three dipping sauces but could be eaten alone. They are "that donut dessert" that so many have tried finally executed the way you'd hoped. The chocolate passion and especially the caramel parfait are terrific desserts. Like other dishes on the menu that could be described as excellent, these dessert dishes would star on a dessert menu that did not feature such a sterling dessert like the Sonhos.
The wine list was good if not a little predictably Iberian (it just doesn't match-up to the menu's imagination). The service was solid and knowledgeable, also very patient with the more than several menu questions we had. I can understand why some people may describe the service as slow or deliberate but pace fit the meal. After finishing a dish I needed a minute to get my bearings and reflect on what just happened.
Lastly, when you make a reservation at a place with buzz you hope for good food and a memorable experience. I've had many a great meal in my ten years in NYC. I've never had a more memorable night of eating.