Some (okay, most) talented chefs announce themselves with grandiose bluster. Others ghost under the radar for years, attended by whispers of greatness. George Mendes, whose long-awaited restaurant, Aldea, opened last month in the Flatiron district, is one of the New York restaurant world’s more storied ghosts. The Portuguese-American chef (Aldea is a riff on “village” in Portuguese) has worked with an impressive array of divas around the globe (Alain Ducasse, Kurt Gutenbrunner, and David Bouley, to name a few). His own restaurant, however, is small, stylishly modest, and characteristically muted. The double-height, blond-wood-paneled space is set with chairs covered in plush white and blue leather, and the view of the outside world is filtered by a façade of white-striped glass. The room is luminously lit and partitioned with sheets of more glass, which make it feel intimate and also worldly, like a boutique tapas bar in some hidden modish section of Barcelona.
Mendes is steeped in all the fashionable, highbrow cooking techniques of our day, including seasonal Haute Barnyard (he ran the kitchen at Tocqueville) and El Bulli–style molecular gastronomy (he did a stint in San Sebastián, with the three-star Basque chef Martín Berasategui). The Mediterranean-accented menu is a distillation of these disparate influences, rendered in the chef’s spare, deceptively simple style. It begins with a limited though decorous selection of small-plate petiscos, the best of which are the crunchy pig’s ears tossed with ramps, with cumin yogurt and apple, and the layers of fresh sea urchin laid over thin sticks of toast spread with cauliflower cream. There are only five appetizers, and if you’re wise, you’ll order the foie gras terrine with figs, the soft baby calamari (in pools of squid ink and a faintly spicy coconut curry), and a creation called “shrimp Alhinho” (made with seared shrimp, flecks of fresh cilantro, and a delicious shrimp reduction finished with smoked paprika).
The kitchen is open at Aldea, so you can observe Mendes and his acolytes slaving earnestly in their spotless whites and caps. The entrées they produce (there are only eight, all under $30) include a very good “All Natural” chicken stuffed with foie gras, delicate slices of hanger steak and a single fried egg, with potato-oxtail terrine topped with gourmet horseradish sauce, and a trio of fat, seared diver scallops, set on a smooth farro risotto dotted with pickled cucumber. Other fish dishes include a well-cooked piece of escolar served with an Arbois wine-laced chickpea stew, and monkfish, which the chef serves in an intricate saffron broth made with fresh crab, tomatoes, and a touch of anise. But the dish everyone at my table went slightly nuts over was the arroz de pato, a kind of newfangled trencherman’s paella made with nickels of chorizo and olives mingled with salty wafers of duck crackling and pieces of soft pulled-duck confit.
With its pocket-size kitchen, its small but sophisticated menu, and its technically accomplished, low-profile chef, Aldea looks like a prototype of the gourmet restaurant of tomorrow, and maybe it is. The compact, two-page wine list features an eclectic selection of bottles from eight countries, many of which are under $50. The desserts (there are only four, plus sorbets and cheeses) are adept little riffs on simplicity itself: a medley of chocolate “textures” (it works best when you push aside the bits of candied black olives), feathery light, doughnut-hole-like “sonyos,” and a little square of caramelized brioche, presented with a spoonful of crème fraîche–and–pink–peppercorn ice cream. The best, though, is the rice-pudding tarte. The pudding is smooth instead of sticky, and it’s garnished in an unexpected way, with diaphanous, slightly salty ribbons of rice crackling.
Scott Bryan is another one of New York’s more gifted under-the-radar chefs. For many years, he worked at Veritas, in the Flatiron district, where his solid, multi-star cooking was regularly overshadowed by the restaurant’s grandiose wine list. In 2007, he moved on, and now, after a period of wandering in the proverbial desert, he has turned up at Apiary, in the East Village. “Miniature,” “modest,” and “cheery” were adjectives polite critics (like me) used to describe this terminally neighborly, decidedly one-star restaurant when it opened last year. But Bryan’s presence in the kitchen has amped things up to a somewhat startling new level. Suddenly, diver scallops are issuing from the kitchen obscured in delicate foams tasting faintly of Madras curry. Sweetbreads have popped up on the menu (served with a romesco purée), and the hamachi crudo is spiced with little shavings of jalapeño, the way Jean Georges likes to prepare it uptown. There’s also a very nice Thai beef salad on Apiary’s new appetizer menu (laced with lemongrass, crushed peanuts, and sprigs of mint), and a sturdy facsimile of Tuscan white-bean soup folded with black kale and properly rustic chunks of tomato. If you order the gourmet-level wild-mushroom risotto, you will find not one but three kinds of wild mushrooms (oyster, hen-of-the-woods, shiitake) buried within. The roast chicken (topped with more wild mushrooms, and set over a rich mascarpone-saturated polenta) is one of the better ones in the neighborhood, and the Berkshire pork chop is baby pink inside and flavored with a lightly sweet orange-ginger glaze. Except for the panna cotta, the desserts are mostly small time, but that’s okay. Dining at this new version of Apiary is bracing and even a little discombobulating, like riding in the back seat of your sister’s Mini Cooper, which has suddenly been commandeered by Dale Earnhardt Jr.