From Aldea to Laut: Making Sense of the Michelin Spectrum

At first, Aldea and Laut seem on equal footing: barely a block separates the two, and both received one star in the 2010 New York City Michelin Guide. Last Friday night, I ate at Laut, and last Saturday, at Aldea. If the little red book’s ratings prove accurate, then one star restaurants ought to revolve around a common axis of quality. Realistically, the Michelin Guide should not be expected to produce exact parity within star groups; after all, the resolution of a one to three star system is poor, resulting in a spectrum within each class. Theoretically, however, that spectrum should not range so wildly as to render predictions of quality from a restaurant’s star(s) meaningless.

Not surprisingly, I found the disparity in quality between Aldea and Laut dramatic, extreme to the point of proving the one star category unacceptably wide. Perhaps it was unfair of me to choose Laut as Aldea’s counterpoint in this experiment. Food blogs and fora dubbed Laut the odd one out of this year’s guide, a shocking addition that defied explanation. Laut, a Malaysian-Thai restaurant, resists the guide’s usual focus on fine dining, or at least “upscale” fare. Evidently, the Michelin team makes a subtle point of including what they consider “ethnic” restaurants in the one star category as representative of the “very good restaurant[s] in [their] category.” Another example, Shalezeh, has also been derided for its inclusion. In fact, the guide’s concerted effort to push Laut and Shalezeh into the one star division inevitably draws unfair attention to them and promotes nonsensical comparisons. Call me nonsensical. Call me unfair. And never mind criticisms that the New York guide’s standards appear incongruent to the various European guides’ criteria. But after working my way through a third of New York’s starred restaurants, I’ve reached a simple conclusion: the spectrum of quality in the one star category is illogically broad, making the one star rank functionally useless as a decision making tool. Juxtaposing Laut and Aldea demonstrates the spectrum’s problematic breadth.

By no means is Laut a bad restaurant. Besides the infuriating pop/hip-hop play list and cramped space, I enjoyed my leisurely tour through Malaysia and Thailand. As expected from “a very good restaurant in its category,” almost everything tasted “very good,” whatever that means.

If I owned a bar, I would serve Laut’s fried anchovies with peanuts, an addictive, salty combo that reminds me of ballpark munchies and summer thirst. But chicken satay turns out just decent, gummy and schmeared with an overwhelming peanut sauce. An exceptionally ordinary rendition of steamed vegetable dumplings tastes generically vegetable-y, muddled and unpleasantly homogeneous. Rescuing the appetizers from utter mediocrity, a juicy order of soft shell crab sags with generous loads of plump meat.

For an entree, try beef rendang, the meat simmered until dry with lemongrass, lime leaves, grated coconut, and thick coconut milk. Tender as my bubbe’s brisket and glowing with gentle spice, this dish demonstrates the kitchen’s skillful hand and wise heart. Mee Siam, a thin rice noodle, tofu, egg, onion, bean sprout, chive, fried shallot, preserved soy bean, garlic, and chili sauce, barely exceeds neighborhood Thai expectations. Such a proud and expansive ingredient list deserves better execution. Clearly, going Malaysian pays off at Laut—Asam laksa, a traditional Malaysian noodle soup flavored with fish flakes, gives up the funk. Definitely foreign to a Western palate, the broth verges on overtly fishy, but balances that pungency with a strong, acidic backbone. Similarly, nasi lemak brings together cacophonous components—coconut rice, chili shrimp, curry chicken, a melange of pickled vegetables, anchovies, and peanuts—to create a funky harmony. Laut’s Malaysian dishes tear the roof off the sucker.

Mango or coconut ice cream ends a heavy meal on a refreshing note; not too sweet, Laut’s desserts make a positive last impression. More adventuresome diners should order pulut inti, rice wrapped in banana leaf topped with coconut and palm sugar. Glutinous and granular, this texturally challenging dessert also shows off a carefully controlled sugar content.

In no way, however, does Laut transcend bimonthly-visited-neighborhood-restaurant status. Perfectly at home in a trendy suburban mall, Laut’s ingredients and technical execution fail to surpass less expensive and critically acclaimed spots. Furthermore, Michelin does not reward the very good restaurants in every culinary category; no Chinese restaurants at all grace the one star list, despite the substantially higher number of Chinese restaurants in New York than Malaysian restaurants. Without any reference point whatsoever, Laut’s star looks like a mistake. When another one star, Aldea, is introduced into the equation, the Michelin Guide’s logic disintegrates completely.

My most recent meal at Aldea convinced me that George Mendes deserves a second star. Although not every dish coming out of Aldea’s kitchen reaches an absolute level of perfection, Mendes’ food is vibrant and convincingly alive. Each composition feels like a complete culinary thought and brims with excitement. Eating at Aldea is an exciting experience because Mendes’ food is excitingly original.

Among the petiscos, or small bites, the sea urchin toast demonstrates Mendes’ ability to engineer flavor density. Orange roe and mustard seeds cover a rectangular cracker along with dabs of cauliflower purée and sea lettuce. Sea urchin and mustard go together like Harry and Sally—argumentative at first, but perfect for each other in the end. Here, Mendes achieves an astounding clarity of flavor: the mustard’s smoldering burn augments the urchin’s characteristic brine, each simultaneously distinct and inseparable. Simpler but no less delicious, a plate of thin-sliced Benton’s country ham illustrates Mendes’ quirky culinary identity. Gravitating towards the Iberian peninsula, Aldea’s menu interprets Spanish and Portuguese traditions. Where then does this American ham fit? Tennessee in the extreme, Benton’s country ham has a firm, hickory chew, appropriate for a back country camping breakfast. Juxtaposing this rustic, sophisticated ham with fermin lomo de bellota and jamon serrano, Mendes suggests that this American product deserves a place next to the best European cured meats. Therein, Mendes invites the diner to search for the American in the Iberian across his menu.

Indeed, Aldea’s appetizers fluctuate between New and Old World. Mussel soup with linguiça sausage, an homage to Portugal, invites comparison to a velouté of Kabocha squash with Concord grape “soda,” Maine lobster, and a kaleidoscopic bunch of mushrooms. While the mussel soup remains a perennial favorite on Aldea’s menu—I also tasted it last May—the squash soup veers into seasonal territory. Poured table side as “contemporary” restaurants tend to do these days, the velouté hits a grape powder, softly effervescing. Whimsically fizzy, the foxy grape energizes the stoic squash. In contrast to the mussel soup, the squash velouté studies early November, American earthiness, as opposed to the riches of the shore. Interestingly, in this preparation the lobster—tender and moist—seems almost terrestrial. This provocative dish maps the spectrum of land and shore, an intellectually ambitious endeavor. Mendes proves himself a master cartographer, a technician and a thinker of the highest orders.

Despite my love for a greasy-good bowl of arroz de pato, Bev Eggleston’s pork belly is a sufficiently decadent meal, too. Crispy and covered with foamy honey, the belly brings on a pork-fat injected high. Meaty trumpet royale mushrooms offer textural contrast, caramelized turnip much needed bitterness. Likewise, Mendes uses king oyster mushrooms to spotlight silky New Bedford diver scallops. Paired with a saucepan of Anson Mill’s grits, the scallops explore that familiar border between country and sea.

Initially, the American gaze of Aldea’s menu seems puzzling. But if one essentializes “Iberian cuisine” as intensely concerned with the intersection of ocean and earth, then Mendes’ food makes perfect sense. At Aldea, Mendes insinuates that “American” cooking requires probing those same borders. Concurrently, Mendes examines the boundary between American and Iberian traditions. In a dessert entitled “Sonhos ‘Little Dreams’,” Mendes pairs sugared doughnuts with spiced chocolate, concord grape, and apple cider caramel dipping sauces. The doughnut’s significance as quintessentially American and as a multiplicitous European form allows Mendes to traverse a range of culinary identities. From the Spanish-inflected spiced chocolate to the American grape jam and apple cider caramel, Mendes challenges any singular doughnut identity. And of course, the little doughnut holes themselves shock the mind into a state of frenzied, primal bliss. Like a pop tart sweetheart, soft in the middle, these doughnuts satisfy the inner child. Covered in chocolate, jam, and caramel, they are surreal.

In the latest Michelin guide, Aldea was robbed of a second star. Comparing Aldea (the top of the one star spectrum) to Laut (the bottom) demonstrates the vast gulf in the one star category. The two restaurants occupy entirely separate universes. Ultimately, it is impossible to make sense of the Michelin spectrum; choosing a dinner spot based on the guide resembles a game of gastronomically dangerous Russian roulette.

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