When I first got married, my wife, who is Brazilian, told me I should learn Portuguese. “But, Ana,” I said, “it’s of such limited applicability. Unless I’m in Brazil or Portugal, when will I ever speak it?” Ana responded that I was being insensitive and that if I thought being able to converse with her family was of limited applicability, well, then, she didn’t even know what. Needless to say, now I speak Portuguese.
As usual, Ana was right and I was wrong. Not only is it nice to be able to speak to her family—they have great things to say—but the reach of the Portuguese is surprisingly deep. (After all, they were the world’s largest and longest empire in the world, beginning in 1415 with the invasion of the North African city of Ceuta and not ending until a decade ago, when they granted independence to Timor-Leste.) At Aldea, Portuguese-American executive chef George Mendes makes this argument persuasively. Mr. Mendes recently launched a special tasting menu based on the cuisines of Portuguese colonies that changes monthly. He launched the series in September with a menu in homage to Brazilian cuisine. I brought my mother-in-law.
I wouldn’t say Aldea has flown under the radar, but I also wouldn’t say it is greeted with the excited chatter it deserves. It’s the kind of highly functioning one-chef, one-restaurant place that—because it isn’t expanding to Toronto and Miami—hums along without much fuss. But on a recent night last month, the high-ceilinged room was full of diners devouring Mendes’ haute Portuguese cuisine. We were led to the back, to the chef’s counter, where Mr. Mendes was expediting a quietly focused kitchen.
The menu, a nine-course prixe fixe ($105 / $160 wine pairing), takes inspiration from Portugal’s most famous colony, but doesn’t ape it. “I’m not trying to recreate traditional Brazilian dishes,” he told us, “I’m interpreting them.” From the beginning, that the aim was interpretation, not imitation, is clear. A Knoll Krest Farm Egg (pictured left), hollowed out and nestled in a fancy porcelain swirl of a plate, was filled with bacalhau (a type of salt cod popular in Brazil) under a cloud of warm potato puree. “This is delicious,” said my mother-in-law, “I recognize the flavors, but they’re put together in a completely new way.”
Later, a moqueca arrived (pictured below). The traditionally rustic fish stew had been deconstructed and upgraded to include foam and nova scotia lobster. My mother-in-law eyed it suspiciously. “That isn’t moqueca,” she said, delicately sipping the foam. “But it is delicious.”
Mendes is the first to admit he’s never actually been to Brazil. “I did a lot of research on the internet and in books, though,” he said, “to find recipes and inspiration in spices.” Some of the dishes, it must be said, bear little resemblance to anything Brazilian but are delicious notwithstanding. (A crisp brick of suckling pig accompanied by littleneck clams is a Mendes signature but not at all Brazilian.)
In the future, the chef plans to explore the rest of the Portuguese empire. In October he’ll unveil a menu inspired by Goa, the Indian state the Portuguese occupied from the 16th century to the 20th. “But there’s literally a whole world to explore,” he said. “I can’t wait.”
Check out George Mendes’ new menu series at Aldea, 31 W 17th Street. aldearestaurant.com