A Delectable Dining Experience with George Mendes at Aldea
I had the pleasure of dining at the Chef’s Table at Aldea this past Friday night, March 31, 2017. I had met George Mendes, the head chef and owner of Aldea, through the wonderful world of running! After we both completed the NYC Half Marathon this March, he had offered to host me. This was an experience I will never forget.
While I expected the kitchen to be filled with chaos and shouting, I was pleasantly surprised to see a calm, beautiful performance of culinary experts with George as the head maestro, orchestrating these wonderful dishes and plating them into masterpieces. A front row seat into a real life “chefs table” is something every food connoisseur should experience at least once. Watching each chef at their stations, prepping the food, stirring the sauces, advising each other on presentation and watching George as the master was a real treat.
George came over and said to us, “How about you put your menu down and I just cook for you?” Fine by me! Let the food games begin! 12 courses later, I am in culinary awe!
The atmosphere at Aldea was surprising quiet and calm, even sitting next to the kitchen. It is a foodie’s paradise. The wine was delicious and paired perfectly with our food.
After eating my way through the entire kitchen, I have such an appreciation for this Portuguese inspired cuisine. Although I have never traveled to Portugal, I am certain the country is as colorful and flavorful as the dishes that George presented to me.
At the end of this piece are highlights of several of the dishes I ate at Aldea. I am not going to break down all 12 courses, because you should go down to the restaurant and experience it yourself!
HIGHLIGHTS FROM ALDEA CHEF’S TABLE EXPERIENCE:
Hokkaido Urchin Toast - Cauliflower purée, Mustard seed and Shiso
Disclaimer: I had never actually eaten Sea Urchin before! In these situations though, you have to trust the chef and hope for the best! Bottoms up! I was pleasantly surprised. The balance of the buttery taste of the sea urchin served over the cauliflower puree really worked! Move over avocado toast, I think I will be having Urchin Toast from now on!
Grilled Octopus - Grilled over Charcoal, with butter, curry, spring onion and marigold
Any time I dine at a restaurant, my go-to appetizer is always grilled octopus. This dish actually IS NOT on the menu. I was lucky two to be a first taste tester of a possible new dish. Many of George’s dishes, use flowers, and in this case marigold, to bring a wonderful flavor to the dish.
Spanish Mackerel - Combo broth, and Radish
A little bite of heaven. The Mackerel was prepared by marinating the fish in vinegar for a few hours, which acts as a cooking catalyst. It is the same type of method used when making ceviche. Then to finish it off, the fish is crisped up with a blowtorch. This was fun to experience and added a nice touch to the dish. The radishes also provided a different crunch to the dish.
House Cured Salt Cod - Smoked Bouchot mussels, saffron, swiss chard and chouriço
This dish was brought to us in an enclosed bowl, which we later learned helped create the smoke flavor of the mussels. It takes a “pot of mussels” to a whole new level.
Duck Breast - Duck confit, chouriço, orange and duck cracklins
Yet again, my taste buds went into total overload. Who knew that oranges would pair so nicely with Duck?! This is the beauty of cooking. Like George noted, you have to try and experiment to see if something works or not. The citrus of the orange balanced with the fullness of the duck. The duck cracklins was an extra touch that added a nice crunch to the dish.
Shrimp Alhinho - Garlic, pimenton, red bell pepper juice and pressed shrimp jus
Shrimp is one of my favorites in the seafood world. The presentation of the shrimp was unique. I had never seen shrimp pressed in that way. It resembled a “mini lobster.”
Quick Fire Questions with Chef George Mendes
Why did you decide to become a chef?
I am a first-generation American born to Portuguese parents. I grew up in a family where working just came naturally. After graduating high school, I was not sure about where I wanted to go to college or which major to select. It wasn’t until I had visited the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York when I was totally hooked.
Did you come from a family where cooking played a key factor?
My family cooks A LOT. Coming from a large family, food was always present at any holiday, birthday, or any family gathering. To me, cooking just came naturally after years and years of observing and assisting in the family’s kitchen.
Cooking is mostly taught in a kitchen from the masters. Who did you learn from/did you have a mentor?
David Bouley. I worked at Bouley down in Tribeca right out of culinary school, where I worked as a garde manger, entremetier and poissonier.
Many people who follow my food site are beginning cooks, what is your most essential cooking tool in your kitchen that every chef must have?
A SHARP knife! It is so important!
Time management is key in any kitchen. What is your advice for a home chef to pace the timing of all of the dishes?
Planning. Make sure you test out your recipes and feel comfortable cooking the dishes that you are serving your guests. Prep-work is also important. The more prep you can do in advance (like cutting veggies, marinating meats) the easier the process will be. Do not cook anything that you are not familiar with if you are cooking for a large group because your gauge on timing will be completely off.
What is the key to harmony and balance when creating a dish?
I think knowing ingredients and tasting everything is very important. Sometimes certain flavors will surprise you on how well they work together. Color is also important. The dish must have a balance of flavor that works harmoniously. The more you cook, the better understanding you have on what works and what does not work.
When you are not working in the kitchen, what is your “go-to” meal?
Like a true New Yorker, my “go-to” is a bagel and cream cheese. But it isn’t just any kind of bagel, it has to be a bagel from Black Seed down on Elizabeth Street. Hand-rolled and wood fired bagels! Can’t beat that!
If you could have one last meal, what would it be?
First, I would start with a cup of pour over coffee and pair it with a 75 day aged Strip Steak.