New York City: Aldea

We were sitting at the counter that looks directly into the open kitchen, so when chef George Mendes began assembling the sardine appetizer I had a clear view of it. “Oh, no,” I thought. “Fussy food.” But when I took my first bite, I instantly changed my opinion: Plump, meaty sardines sandwiched between super-crisp crackers of toasted brioche were perfect for dredging through a coarse paste of bitter almond milk laid out in squiggles on the plate. A dash of lemon kept the richness in check, and a couple of soft, subtle green almonds—as sure a sign of spring in the Mediterranean as ramps are in the U.S.—delivered on the restaurant’s promise of “Iberian influences.” It was a great plate of food. And that was just the beginning. A generous slab of sea urchin roe (the must-have ingredient in new restaurants, it seems) was perched on toast spread with a scrim of lush cauliflower cream, with mustard greens and seaweed for a bit of backbone. Spring vegetable consommé was a true celebration of the season, adding the earthiness of mushroom “ravioli” to the lightness of the perfectly cooked vegetables. Arroz de pato (“rice with duck”), a takeoff on a popular Peruvian Creole dish, was the fried rice of my dreams, rich with duck confit, chorizo, salty olives, and crunchy duck cracklings. It’s true, as reported, that Mendes—who was chef de cuisine at Wallsé and Tocqueville, as well as working with Bouley, Passard, and Ducasse—is very handsome. And it’s also true that the 400 acrylic tubes hanging in the narrow two-story space are cool. But it’s the food you should go for.

Aldea 31 W. 17th St., New York City (212-675-7223)



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