The lesson learned from George Mendes' menu that was served at FIG on Sunday night? Duck cracklings are mind-blowingly delicious.
Mendes, the chef/owner of Aldea in NYC, made a special trip to Charleston as part of a kitchen swap with FIG Chef Mike Lata and prepared a four-course menu that showcased the Portugese specialties that are making him famous in New York and getting him in all the right magazines. In his introduction, Lata remarked on Mendes' intense focus, telling the crowd that they'd been in the kitchen since 7 a.m. preparing the food for that night's dinner.
And the food was simply exceptional. A restrained amuse bouche of flounder cru with almond milk, lime, and extra virgin olive oil set the tone for the evening with its delicate flavors.
Despite Mendes' use of distinctive spices like smoked paprika, saffron, and cinnamon, the dishes on the menu never felt overpowered by the flavors. In the shrimp "alhinho," a handful of shrimp came surrounded by a seductively smoky sauce made from fish stock, pimenton, and coriander. Despite the richness of the sauce, the shrimp was still the star of the dish.
For the next course, Mendes prepared his own Bacalhau, or salted cod, which was served in a puddle of golden saffron broth. We requested extra bread at this point for sopping purposes.
Arroz de Pata came next, using a savory risotto as a base for duck confit, chorizo, and duck cracklings. The winemaker chose to pair this course with two different red wines — both from the Esporão estate in Portugal — and everyone at our table decided that the more full-bodied Reserva Tinto was the better choice.
The final dish paired cinammon ice cream with crunchy banana tarte for a satisfyingly spicy end to the meal.
Thanks to Mike Lata for using his connections to enrich our dining scene. And congrats to him for knowing how to eat/cook like a man. He's featured in this month's Esquire. See the slideshow here: esquire.com/features/food-drink/restaurants-for-men-0410?click=pp