Aldea, Not To Be Cheesy, But I’ll Eat You All Day-a
Finally, a restaurant where the hype is warranted. Under-the-radar chef and owner George Mendes’ precious gem of a restaurant, Aldea, really sent me spinning into the stratosphere with the quality of the food. The Portuguese-American date spot in Flatiron wows with an inventive menu, top-notch ingredients, and well-executed dishes.
The small railroad space on 17th Street is easily missed from the outside. But, open entering, you are greeted by a very friendly hostess and ushered into a tranquil sea-themed oasis. The front bar and bi-level dining room are both muted, sophisticated, and mellow. Soft textural marine hues, very dim lighting, and a sleek contemporary design emphasize the lilting and relaxed vibe. According to the website, Aldea’s interior “tells a story of the inherent beauty of the countryside of the Iberian coast” and includes many reminders of the soothing effects of wispy wind and water. In the back is the coveted 6-seat Chef’s Table and on the second level is a hauntingly illuminated private dining room.
The food is good. In fact, it is just really really really good. Elegant, playful, and creative without sacrificing an ounce of taste or deliciousness, the modern Portuguese-American food blends avant-garde techniques with traditional flavors and concepts. The menu is divided into three parts: Petiscos (small plates), Appetizers, and Entrees. I took a walk on the wild side and sampled the Sea Urchin Toast petisco. Admittedly, I have never had sea urchin before, and it is nothing like I expected. Creamy and almost sweet, this tender dollop wooed me silly, prepared on crispy toast with cauliflower cream, sea lettuce, and lime. Without hesitation, a must-have for all palates if ever visiting Aldea.
My dining companion Stephen and I both opted for seafood appetizers (seafood clearly being the house’s favorite set of proteins), ordering the Lightly-Cured Mackerel and the Shrimp Alhinho respectively. The mackerel was prepared with meyer lemon, almond milk, and hackelback caviar. Light and refreshing, the thin slabs of fish melted in your mouth and were distinctly un-fishy (probably because of the overpowering almond flavor). The shrimp were fat and perfectly cooked in oil and spices. Satisfyingly hot, they reminded me of home and this wonderful spicy shrimp dish my momma cooks.
For entrees, we switched gears, focusing on meats. Stephen ordered the Hanger Steak and Short Ribs with smoked mashed potatoes, pequilo peppers, and golden turnips. The hanger steak was the star, prepared to a beautiful pinkish-red color and very tender. A potato fanatic, I loved how the smooth smoky mashed potatoes added another layer of depth to the dish. Stephen and I disagreed on my Arroz de Pato dish. While he thought it was bland and not very exciting, I loved the thick, hearty, and textured feel of the duck confit and chorizo rice mixture. It warmed me from the inside out, perfect for a blustery January night.
All in all, the food was immensely satisfying, balancing originality with fresh ingredients, classic proteins, and perfect execution. The only grey spot on the meal was the service. Only one word sums its up accurately: slow. Table service is excruciatingly slow (and don’t worry, they know it, acknowledge it, and apologize for it). It took about 20minutes for a ‘small plate’ to get out of the kitchen…on a Monday night. I can only imagine the back-up at peak hours.
Either way, Aldea is a pretty sweet date spot – elegant but with great music, modern with a hip forward-thinking chef, and ridiculously good for the moderate price point. You can get 3 courses and a glass of wine for $60 – not too shabby for a critically-acclaimed spot with a famously-talented chef at the helm. Aldea is also great for treating your parents (or having your parents treat you) to a swanky night on the town without overdoing it on the hipness factor.