George Mendes spent 17 years honing his knowledge, technique, and style under the guidance of some of the world's greatest culinary masters before opening his first restaurant, Aldea, in May 2009. At the restaurant, located in Manhattan's Union Square neighborhood, Mendes's rustic yet refined cuisine has earned a one-star rating from the Michelin Guide every year since 2010, along with two-star reviews from both New York magazine and the New York Times and threestar reviews from the Daily News and Bloomberg. In 2011, Mendes received one of the industry's most coveted honors when he was named one of Food & Wine magazine's 10 Best New Chefs.
In its debut year, Aldea was named one of the 10 best restaurants to open nationwide by Alan Richman of GQ magazine, and was ranked third among the 10 best new New York restaurants by Bloomberg restaurant critic Ryan Sutton. Adam Platt of New York magazine ranked Aldea second in a list of the 10 best new restaurants, with Mendes named as one of the year's four best new chefs, and in December 2011, Platt placed Aldea on his list of the 101 best New York City restaurants.
A first-generation American born to Portuguese parents, Mendes grew up in Danbury, Conn., enjoying elaborate, festive meals. After graduating from the Culinary Institute of America in 1992, Mendes worked for David Bouley, his mentor, at the original Bouley in Tribeca. There, he sharpened his cooking skills as garde-manger, entremetier, and poissonier. To further develop his talent, he participated in two month-long stages at Alain Passard's Arpège in Paris, where he learned the importance of exceptional ingredients and simple preparation.
When Bouley closed in 1996, Mendes became the executive chef of Le Zoo, a small French bistro in Greenwich Village. He returned to fine dining two years later as the executive sous chef at the three-star Lespinasse in Washington, D.C., working under Sandro Gamba. During his year and a half at the D.C. restaurant, Mendes traveled to France and staged at Le Moulin de Mougins under the legendary Roger Vergé, and at La Bastide de Moustiers under Alain Ducasse. The Bastide menu, which changed daily, relied on the adjacent garden for all vegetables and herbs. Mendes enjoyed the challenge and reward of working in an environment that emphasized the freshness and seasonality of the ingredients. Following these experiences, he returned to New York to help his friend and fellow Bouley alumnus, Kurt Gutenbrunner, open his Austrian restaurant, Wallsé.
In 2003, Mendes headed overseas once again to stage with the highly acclaimed Basque chef Martín Berasategui at his eponymous Michelin three-star restaurant in San Sebastian, Spain. He introduced Mendes to the culinary avant-garde movement, teaching him to add personal flair to traditional recipes while remaining true to the ingredients. Mendes retained this philosophy and later used it to craft Aldea's menu.
Mendes returned to New York and spent the next three years at Tocqueville as chef de cuisine, before leaving to finally pursue his own restaurant venture.
The menu at Aldea—named for the Portuguese word for “village”—is the culmination of Mendes's Iberian experiences and Portuguese heritage. He prepares a variety of seasonal shellfish, rice dishes, and Iberian-cured hams that have been adored by diners and critics alike.
In his home kitchen, Mendes prepares simple dishes such as fish, pasta, and roasted chicken. When he is not cooking, Mendes enjoys dining at his friends' restaurants and frequenting cookbook stores for inspiration.
For the Shrimp: Heat a large skillet over high heat until very hot. Lightly coat the bottom with olive oil and heat until lightly smoking. Add half of the shrimp in a single layer. Cook just until golden and orange, about 10 seconds, and flip quickly. Cook for 10 seconds more and immediately transfer to a plate. Repeat with the remaining shrimp.
Reduce the heat to medium-high and add ¼ cup olive oil. Add the garlic and cook, stirring, until light golden but not browned, about 2 minutes. Stir in the pimento and return the shrimp to the pan. Adjust the heat to bring the oil to a slow bubble and poach the shrimp for a minute. Fold in the parsley, cilantro, and lemon juice.
For the Shrimp Essence: Heat a large, deep saucepan over medium-high heat. Coat the bottom with a thin layer of canola oil. Add the shrimp heads and cook, stirring occasionally, until browned. Add the onion, fennel, celery, shallots, garlic, fennel, star anise, and saffron. Sweat, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are soft but not browned.
Deglaze with the brandy, stirring until the liquid has evaporated. Add the Pernod and cook until the liquid has evaporated. Stir in the butter and tomato paste and cook, stirring, for 2 minutes. Add 2 quarts water to cover, heat to a simmer, and simmer for 30 minutes. Remove from the heat, add the tarragon and parsley, and let stand for 15 minutes.
Pass the mixture through a food mill, and then press through a fine mesh sieve. Cool the shrimp liquid, then add a pinch of xanthan gum until shrimp essence reaches desired thickness (it should coat the back of a spoon). Puree with an immersion blender. Transfer to a saucepan and heat over medium heat until barely bubbling. Keep hot.
To Finish: Divide the shrimp among 4 serving plates. Spoon the pan sauce with the garlic and herbs over the shrimp. Spoon the shrimp essence over and around the shrimp. Garnish with the paprika filaments and cilantro leaves.