Last summer, two little restaurants came forth into the world, very different, but full of promise. I first visited them last summer (you can read my first posts on them if you like), and then I had the interesting experience of revisiting each one within days of each other last week. One is trendy and a bit of a joke, the other is quiet and so good as inspire a standing ovation (from the people at the next table).
One restaurant was destined to be a fashion-y, scenester place, as its owners came from places like Waverly Inn, Freeman’s and Pastis, three spots that ooze coolness like jelly from a donut. The location is the basement of a charming townhouse in the West Village, and the design, like so many restaurants in New York these days, is a throwback to the Prohibition era 1920s. This restaurant is called Hotel Griffou, but you wouldn’t know it by walking by, because like all wannabe speakeasies in this city, there’s no sign. The “history” of Hotel Griffou includes a, long-deceased Madame Griffou, who apparently ran a pretty nice brothel and liked things like steak Diane and lobster thermidor.
The other restaurant is called Aldea. Its owner, George Mendes, is its chef, and he did time at Toqueville, Wallse, and Bouley, the last of which has given birth to a remarkably high number of chef-restaurateurs. Aldea lives on a rather uncharming stretch of 17th Street whose most famous resident, looming large a few doors down, is BLT Fish. Where Hotel Griffou is all bordello chic, Aldea is clean and modern with a noticeable zen factor. Hotel Griffou wants you to take off your clothes (judging by the various photos of topless women), Aldea wants you to clear your mind. It took Mendes about two years to build his restaurant, and it shows most in the open kitchen, a superbly organized wonder of polished steel and white tile that invites no shortage of kitchen envy.
Fulfilling the cliche of what Griffou attracts, I was there for a fashion-related dinner with the French-Canadian designer of Fluxus, a contemporary line known for their drapey way with jersey. We ordered lobster fondue and tuna tartare and I, having a sinking feeling the food was just going to suck, decided against unworthy calories (the special du jour was veal osso bucco) and went for tuna under the amusing section called “Simply Grilled,” clearly targeted for the room full of skinny people who need something light with their cocktails. That said, the cocktails are the best part of Griffou. They’re creative, with good ingredients and well-mixed- they’re generally awesome. Then again, at $15 a pop they should be awesome. The food at Griffou must be an afterthought. I have no other explanation why grilled tuna should taste like it just came out of a freezer. It should be a lot better because when I first went there it was better. I wonder what will happen to Griffou if the food isn’t worthy visiting, and the scene has moved on to the next hotspot?
Fast forward to Aldea, two days later. I have just sat down with my friend Tarra at the chef’s counter in the back of Aldea, to swoon over the open kitchen. I order a glass of Cava and am admiring the precise movements of the many cooks, all seemingly choreographed to produce a culinary recital, sans music. A group from the table behind us has finished dinner and they move towards the kitchen, where Mendes is expediting. They start clapping, cheering with so much appreciation and grace you’d think they’d spent the last month eating at Griffou. It’s rare to see people cheer the chef after their dinner. It’s a good sign.
The meal was delicious- there’s so much thought in every dish, so much complexity. One of my favorites is the amuse bouche the kitchen sends out. It was a mushroom ravioli in a butternut squash puree. The mushroom “ravioli” resembled a translucent brown gelatinous egg. (YUM, you say. I know, my description is killer). You scoop up the ravioli with a little of the squash puree, pop it in your mouth, and the ravioli pops, releasing a burst of liquid that is all wild mushroom. It’s like caviar, or flavor burst gum. It’s INCREDIBLE. We tried a simple plate of crisp market vegetables, served with boquerones and a dash of earthy but bright coriander yogurt. Cuttlefish with caramelized lychee and squid ink. A beautiful sea-salted cod with cranberry and fava beans over a nasturtium parsley sauce. And for dessert, Aldea’s donuts, which are off the hook. They serve them with three dipping sauces and that night it was salt caramel, chocolate, and a blackberry jam. You’ll only see a picture of the empty basket (filled with sugar!) because we entered inhalation mode (often happens with dessert).
Griffou, with its mediocre food and bustling scene, is arguably more successful, but they have a strong bar built in. Aldea has little interest in a bar business. It’s about food, and chilling out, and being surprised, maybe even tickled, by something they’ve created. Maybe it’s unfair to compare the two because they’re so different. But let’s say you’re choosing a place for dinner. The loudest one in the room will always be heard, regardless of whether they have anything meaningful to say. This is my plea to listen to the quiet ones. Oh, and the quiet one is also less expensive.
Aldea: 31 W. 17th St. Visit aldearestaurant.com.
Hotel Griffou: 21 W. 9th St. No website, so visit nymag.com for more info.