Aldama is one of New York’s best new Mexican restaurants


In Aldama in southern Williamsburg, a thrilling and mezcal-fueled ode to Mexico City, an inky mole takes the form of an abstract painting. A black mound of seeds and melted peppers rests on a ceramic plate, like lava cooling on asphalt. The cooks place a cover of truffles and herbs on top, decorating the mole with flashes of green and gray. And that’s all. A mole negro often enriches a bunch of shredded turkey, but the pre-Columbian specialty doesn’t need to adorn an expensive protein to be a good dish. Good mole is the dish. It is an edible distillation of fire, smoke and soil. This particular version of Brooklyn is reminiscent of the poetic words of cookbook author Alejandro Ruiz, who writes in the English edition of Oaxacan food that moles are “alchemy concocted over low heat, an allegory still intact of our spicy land”.

Aldama is one of the few local restaurants to serve mole negro with little else; a few ounces of the order of black elixir $ 30. The chefs slowly cook anchos, cascabels, walnuts, hazelnuts, almonds, sesame seeds, kombu (not a typical addition), mushroom broth, chocolate, peanuts and too many other ingredients to enumerate. You then slide a white corn tortilla through the carbon-colored dough until it’s all gone. The ensuing flavors appear almost at random, like the tunes of a free-form jazz ensemble; there are notes of dark chocolate, fertile soil, mushrooms, nuggets, sugar and lingering heat. Sometimes the flavors hang around for a second; sometimes they smolder for so long that you taste them again after a waiter clears your setting. It is the ghost of a dish.

He also happens to be completely vegan.

Mole negro with chanterelles.

The mole negro is often inaccessible to those who do not consume animal products, due to the addition of chicken broth, chocolate with dairy products or large pieces of braised chicken. Aldama co-owner Christopher Reyes told me the team wanted a mole that “everyone can eat.” And the result, here at this late night dinner party at a restaurant, is a product that channels the wonders of watching Terence Blanchard playing the trumpet at Blue Note or sitting behind home plate at Yankee Stadium. That is, there are other places to eat Mexican food, listen to live music, or watch baseball, but the mole here channels a refined style of quintessential New York luxury that screams : when you’re here, you don’t want to be anywhere else.

Reyes, from Queens of Puerto Rican and Mexican descent, and chef Gerardo Alcaraz, who spent time with Martin Berasategui, three Michelin stars in Spain, gave the city what could be its best modern Mexican restaurant in nearly seven years. .

Counterclockwise, from top: A carrot and daikon tostada, owner Christopher Reyes and chef Gerardo Alcaraz, patrons in the outdoor garden.

In a compact bar room just below street level, patrons watch golden-hued trompos spinning around in the semi-open kitchen. Dominican, Argentinian, Colombian and Spanish pop tunes resonate throughout the wooded space. Counter workers prepare frozen purple drinks – a mixture of mezcal, vermouth, and hibiscus – in short glasses edged with spicy-salty gusano sal. And the waiters carry al pastor-style tacos made not only with typical pork, but with layers of flank steak and pineapple-serrano gel dumplings. Each element shines through as if it were magnified: the porky side of the fatty pork, the beef punch of the beef, the musky sweetness of the house-ground corn tortilla and the avant-garde fruit sauce that infuses everything with a tropical aroma more strong than a single slice of pineapple. There is no other taco al pastor like this in New York City.

The local Mexican and Mexican-American scenes have evolved tremendously since 2014, when Enrique Olvera opened Cosme, an astonishing Flatiron restaurant that served the kind of photogenic and expensive little plates – uni tostadas, barbacoa squash – that the townspeople were at. more accustomed. meeting in chic establishments with a European tendency. The restaurant, along with parts of Alex Stupak’s Empire Empellón, would convince diners that ambitious Mexican cuisine could empty their wallets at about the same rate as a Tony steakhouse or a mid-range sushi restaurant. , with dinner often at $ 150 per person or more.

Tacos al pastor.

Olvera eventually followed up with the excellent Atla, an expensive all-day cafe for chia seeds and suadero tacos in a building where rental apartments cost up to $ 12,000 a month. And other ambitious Mexican spots – many of them quite expensive, others less – have also started to appear. The stain of Oaxaca Claro finally appeared to Gowanus; he then sold some damn good moles as part of a $ 72 set menu. Sobre Masa, a sprawling cafe and tortilleria near Aldama, opened last fall, drawing a hip crowd with DJs and weekend chefs selling $ 25 ceviche appetizers. And while Xilonen at Greenpoint may not be the show it once was, the venue still draws chic crowds serving up the icy blue atole and Instagram-friendly vegan chorizo ​​tacos.

What sets Aldama apart – aside from its pulsating energy, cozy bar, and Latin pop soundtrack – is that it ranks as one of the city’s most technical modern Mexican places. The chef’s plating style often evokes tedious magazine art direction, but never at the expense of creating something that can’t be gobbled up after sipping a tiny bit too much mezcal.

Alcaraz concocts a menu of fifteen dishes inspired by the cuisine of Mexico City, Tijuana, and his hometown of León, Guanajuato. Some of these preparations are rarely seen in the type of Mexican place that charges $ 14 for cocktails. This is the case, for example, with cecina, thin slices of air-dried beef that are often found in tacos in more casual places. Atla once served it as a wonderfully salted steak meant to be folded into tortillas, but Aldama does it a little differently, frying the meat until it’s completely crisp. The result is an avant-garde chicharron, a wavy brown leaf that ripples like a Frank Gehry roof. As the meat replenishes in your mouth, the experience is akin to eating the outside of a grilled smash burger. It is beef at the power 1000.

Slices of purple octopus, prawns and jalapeños lie in a cold vegetable and seafood broth in a ceramic bowl

Champechana with coriander and jalapenos.

A photo from outside Aldama shows patrons having dinner inside the warmly lit bar

The bar room in Aldama.

Alcaraz also plays with campechana, the Mexican seafood cocktail that often takes the form of shellfish with tomatoes stacked in a tall glass. Here, the chef arranges bites of shellfish in a small ring, which he decorates with herbaceous cilantro and sliced ​​fresh peppers. The net effect is a collection of seafood and herbs making their best impression of a Christmas wreath. The small octopus nuggets are brilliantly elastic, while the delicate shrimp are no firmer than the flan. And a vegetable-seafood broth at the bottom masterfully enhances all the marine and brackish aromas.

For tostadas, Alcaraz turns to a more international source of spice, deploying strategic doses of yuzu kosho in a loose pile of striped bass ceviche. The tangy factor is tamed here, to let the oils and meat of the fish show through. For something a little wilder, consider daikon tostada; chefs fold ribbons of carrots and radishes like thai rolled ice cream and pair them with a level of crease reminiscent of lime juice amplified by the strain of an electric eel. A few slices of avocado and the tostada’s popcorn punch provide welcome relief.

A separate bar menu offers deep-fried tuna tacos, although over-fried interiors can sometimes take on the texture of jerky, so stick with al pastor. Also keep in mind that mole, just like a fickle French sauce, can vary from day to day. During one visit, the preparation was somewhat thin, almost like a runny chocolate sauce, and displayed more subtle aromas reminiscent of ash, chalk, slate and cocoa. The undertones are a little harsh at first, but a few soft chanterelles bring everything back to an elegant balance. The first mole was revealed through frank and assertive flavors; this one was softer.

The chewy cajeta mousse rests on a crispy brown buñelo

Buñelo with cajeta mousse.

If you eat meat, the Mole Negro works as a medium dish in modest portions before a whole baby chicken appears. Alcaraz cooks the bird on a low heat for six hours, leaving the flesh with such a concentrated poultry flavor that it tastes like spending its last few weeks eating entirely on schmaltz. Tear up the meat and slide it through a beige pipian mole, a pool of sauce that smooths the chicken with a clean creaminess and a powerful pumpkin seed kick.

A few minutes before the kitchen closed on a recent night, the kitchen made a round of crispy fried dough the size of a placemat, as crisp as carta di musica bread, and sprinkled it with whipped cajeta. The funky goat’s milk cream crown served as the perfect foil for the crunchiness of the dough. As I devoured this centerpiece, Argentinian rapper Nicki Nicole blew up the sound system; customers asked the bartender for mezcal recommendations in Spanish; and a man in a white suit danced outside. Indeed, there is almost nowhere I want to be, right now.

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