Chef George Mendes at the center of Aldea's kitchen
Anticipating the arrival of Chef George Mendes' My Portugal: Recipes and Stories (soon-to-be-released on October 7th), we couldn't wait for last Monday night's Ameztoi Txakolina Dinner at Aldea. Seated at the chef's counter, we watched Mendes pirouette from one side of the kitchen to the other, spoon, bowl or pan in hand, with the members of his troop supporting and shadowing his every move. On view to all who were seated in the dining room, Mendes prepared plates with a surgeon's precision, placing a single black trumpet mushroom just right. Closed for the event that night, Aldea buzzed with its attentive staff coursing through its intimate space, pouring Ameztoi and bearing paired plates.
And though Mendes grew up in Portuguese household, which is typically reflected in the menu at Aldea, this night was a kind of homage to the time he spent in San Sebastian with Martin Berasategui, the three-Michelin star Basque chef. "The experience I had with Martin," said Mendes, "he was cooking the food he ate while growing up. It made me think of my childhood and what I ate and how to form my own style. He had an impact because we had a similar experience of how food was introduced into our lives, through culture and heritage. It was in his blood and bones already, from which he could branch off."
Ember-Cooked Yellowfin Tuna served with Ameztoi Txakoli
Imagining how Mendes once sat watching his mother bustle about the kitchen, we sat savoring kitchen aromas while awaiting the arrival of each plate. "My mom taught me what honest flavors were...soulful cooking. I have a vision of that small black pot and wooden spoon with olive oil boiling in it--sweaty onions, tomatoes, paprika, bay leaves and white wine. It gives that recognition, that strong foundation. I remember opening the refrigerator and smelling the marinating meats."
Flakes of Bacalhau with Ameztoi Rubentis
With memory at the root of most all of his dishes, it was his remembrance of Vinho Verde that led to his love of Txakolina. "I had it the first time while working in San Sebastian with Martin. I drank Vinho Verde growing up. It was on the table alongside the jug of Carlo Rossi that sat beside my dad. When I tasted Txakolina for the first time, it brought me back."
Selecting the wines for that night's dinner first, Mendes then matched the flavors of the dishes around them. "The cod. The tomato and herbs. The acidity. The aromas of parsley and oregano and thyme. It's floral. As floral as the nose [of the Ameztoi Rubentis]," he said. "All three dishes I never created before," he added and laughed. "I've never made them at Aldea. I love that challenge. It's tasting and adjusting as you're making them. Tonight was a comfortable number of people that we could adjust to it. We could be fluid."
Fluidity on the stage of an open kitchen yields beauty on the plate. "It's a sit-down dinner party," said Mendes over a glass of Rubentis, when most all of the guests had paid and left. "When we close the restaurant and do a sit-down dinner like this, everyone plays their part." From Mendes' elegant kitchen-mates to his cheerful waitstaff; from the pickled figs and cherries served alongside the dry-aged duck breast, to the bright and tart-fruit chalky notes in my glass of Ameztoi Stimatum. Every dish begins with a memory. Every sip the sum of a wine's terroir. To Chef Mendes and his team, we raise a glass.
For more on Ameztoi, read here.
For more on El Maestro Sierra, read here.