Grading NYC: Bar Breton: C-; Pala: D; Aldea: A- (plus a mediocre meal in CT)

June 22, 2009

Having read rave reviews of the new Bar Breton in New York City, I was looking forward to dinner there on my first night in steamy, soggy Manhattan (it’s been raining here for days). I’d always liked chef Cyril Reynaud’s cooking at Fleur de Sel, and since I’m a huge fan of galettes, or buckwheat flour crepes with savory fillings, I was confident of a good feed. Alas, the meal was a major letdown beginning with a cocktail that smelled and tasted like long shoreman’s sweat (rest assured that I’m guessing on this one), followed by a special starter of Virginia oysters that came to the table drowning in a sauce mignonette (shallots and vinegar) that completely obliterated their flavor. Why a restaurant would automatically apply such a heavy-handed garnish rather than serving it as as side dish is beyond me. Next, my galette with a small green salad–hungry as a farmhand, I ordered the version with Black Forest ham, Gruyere, and an egg. What arrived was a correctly crispy galette filled with a flabby slice of tasteless supermarket quality boiled ham–if they’d run out of Black Forest ham, the waitress should have said so–and bits of rubbery cheese which led me to conclude that the cheese was poor quality, pre-grated or both. The smoked trout in my friend Nanette’s galette was completely tasteless, too, and the only saving grace of this meal was a fairly priced bottle of Spanish Rueda, a nice summer wine, and some very good company.

Having read a major shout-out good review of the Greenwich Tavern as one of the best places for brunch in Fairfield County, Connecticut in the metropolitan pages of a certain estimable New York newspaper, I invited Mom to lunch for Father’s Day on Sunday. Despite the patrician sounding name, this rather frumpy little restaurant turned out to be located on U.S. 1, aka the Post Road, which is renamed Putnam Avenue in Greenwich. I was immediately suspicious of this place when I realized it had valet parking, too–I mean after all, what’s the point of living in the suburbs if you can’t park your own car. In any event, the meal was more of an intriguing study in profit-maximizing food-service industry practices than it was a good feed. Though Mom’s wild mushroom and andouille potstickers were pretty good (if boldly overpriced at $12), the shrimp in my cocktail were flaccid and had been hanging around the kitchen for a while. Next, we both ordered the lobster roll, which arrived as two dainty little buns of barely dressed lobster, a smart way of tinkering with the bread to crustacean ratio. And we both had cones of cold fries, and then a large order of garlic Parmesan fries, entirely unnecessary, that the waiter charmed Mom into wanting. A middle-brow California Chardonnay at $12 a glass meant we clearly in hedge-fund territory, too, and the only half-decent moment of this meal was the nicely made pecan tart. Otherwise, yet another expensive and mediocre meal in southwestern Connecticut, a place I must visit regularly to see my family, so if anyone has any suggestions of truly good eats in Stamford, Norwalk, Westport, Bridgeport, etc., I’d be very grateful.

I won’t waste anyone’s time with Pala, one of the trendy new places that have opened in the Bowery neighborhood as that part of the city has so improbably gentrified. Though they won a reader’s poll in the “New York Daily News” for having the city’s best pizza, what I ate with my friend Joel from San Francisco was really third rate. The pizza came to the table cold and the cheese on my “fungi and sausage” looked and tasted like melted plastic. A robot-like bus boy stopped by every five minutes to see if we were “still working” on the pizza, an infelicitous phrase if ever there were one, and this brazonly mediocre meal added injury to insult by costing $100.

Just when I’d started having a flickering doubt or two about the health of the New York restaurant scene, I went to dinner at Aldea, a beautiful new restaurant on 17th between 5th and 6th, and had a superb meal. Young chef George Mendes, a Portuguese-American from Bethel, CT, has worked in Europe with Roger Verge, Alain Ducasse, Martin Bersategui (Saint Sebastien), and Alain Passard, and it’s the intensity of a certain European technicity applied to his personal riff on Portuguese food that makes this such an exciting place for a meal. Arriving late, the staff was friendly, relaxed and welcoming, and the store-front space designed by Stephanie Goto looks like one of the hip new restaurants in Barcelona–good lighting, chain mail dividers, frosted glass panels, lots of white. Hungry, we ordered two “petiscos,” or snacks to nibble on while waiting for our starters to arrive, and both were superb. Fine slices of sea urchin topped cauliflower puree on wands of toast, while Benton’s country ham from Tennessee was exquisitely silky and smoky and came with a pan tomate, or slice of baguette smeared with fresh tomato puree. Next, I had the shrimp alhinho, crunchy prawns flavored with pimenton, garlic and coriander, a brilliant melange of flavors, and Tom went with the “migliorelli farms’ peas and Tennessee bacon” with a soft-poached egg, green garlic and summer truffle slices, a superb dish that’s very similar to what’s being served in really good young Barcelona bistros like Embat. I vaguely feared that the magic wouldn’t last through our main courses–so often young chefs excel with their starters but lose their footing with the mains. Not Mendes, however, since his arroz de pato was one of the most delicious things I’ve eaten all year–think short grained rice cooked paella style (with a nice crust) and garnished with tender pieces of duck confit and coins of chorizo, a succulent and beautifully balanced dish. Tom’s Niman Ranch pork loin with smoked yellow corn, manilla clams and a scallion-ramp glaze was excellent, too; a rift on a classic Portuguese cataplana, this version had the same intriguing mix of earthy and marine flavors but with considerably more finesse. We finished up with an order of sonhos, or little dreams, donut like nibbles with spiced chocolate, smoked paprika apricot, and hazelnut praline. All told, an excellent and very original meal, and since Aldea has a counter from which you can watch Mendes and team at work, I’m already looking forward to a solo lunch that will allow me to observe the crew in action.

Aldea, 31 West 17th Street, New York, NY 10011, T. 212-675-7223. Avg $60

Bar Breton, 254 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY  10016, T: 212-213-4999. Avg $40

Greenwich Tavern, 1392 East Putnam Avenue, Greenwich, CT 06870, T: 203-698-9033. Avg $50