Ten years ago George Mendes opened Aldea in the Flatiron District, a handsome, thoroughly contemporary restaurant that earned him critical acclaim, a devoted following, and a Michelin star. The food at Aldea is drawn by Mendes's Portuguese heritage (though he uses flavors and ideas from all over the Iberian peninsula), and signature dishes include a remarkable Arroz de Pato, a rich, hearty stew of a meal loaded with duck confit, duck cracklins, and fatty sausage.
So it comes as a bit of surprise that Mendes's new summer pop-up restaurant in SoHo, called Amar ("love" in Portuguese) is such an aggressively "health-inspired" concept, with a menu heavy on raw vegetables, low-fat proteins, and grains like quinoa. In another twist, Mendes is collaborating on three dishes here with model and "wellness advocate" Sanne Vloet, also known for her work as a Victoria's Secret Angel.
George Mendes and Sanne Vloet. (Scott Lynch / Gothamist)
Amar takes over Chefs Club Counter on the corner of Spring and Lafayette, the dedicated pop-up space that has seen several hits (Burgers by Egg Slut, the L.A. import Ramen Hood) and a miss (Dog Haus) over the past couple of years. As always, this is a counter-service restaurant, and they recently brought in those snazzy ordering kiosks. The layout is the same as well, with decorative flourishes, usually involving plants, added specifically for Amar. The outdoor tables remain my preferred perch, mostly for the people-watching.
We had the chance to eat most of Mendes's menu at a special preview event earlier this week, and can confirm that it is, indeed, pretty healthy. Take the Quinoa Paella, topped with arugula, goat cheese, and fig vinaigrette, which is the lightest version of the Iberian classic you'll likely ever have. There's a bright, if unsurprising, Summer Market Salad; a dish called Forbidden Coconut with black rice, barely-seared tuna, pickled beets, and some semi-lively curry; and a Chicken Piri-Piri Sandwich on a soft and chewy Portuguese roll.
The Crispy Cod and Potato Croquettes have a little heft and a lot of flavor, and the Charred Chicken Rice, while not a gut-buster by any means, also feels substantial, and even includes some nice crispy skin. Down in Vlloet territory, you'll find Skin Booster Salad with a strip of salmon, a dish called Anti Inflammatory featuring turmeric cauliflower curry, and a Smoothie Bowl. It's all extremely well suited for Soho in the summertime.
Koku (Scott Lynch / Gothamist)
Meanwhile, next door in the sister spot that has housed the likes of the Oddfellows Carnival and Camp Cookie DO, another frozen treat parlor also just opened. In keeping with the wellness theme, it's a plant-based, allergen-free "scoop shop" called Koku (nee Kokus). You may have eaten a cone or two of this coconut cream dessert before, at Smorgasburg or the Bowery Market, but this is founder Carli Blum's first storefront, albeit a temporary one.
Here Blum and crew are serving six different flavors of her rich and thick concoction, including Dark Cacao with Reishi (a superfood mushroom), the vitamin-rich Moringa Mint Chip, and the libido-boosting (supposedly) Strawberry Maca. You can get your scoops in a cup or in one of Koku's housemade, vegan, gluten-free cones, with drizzles and toppings such as salted honey tahini, wild blueberries, gluten-free granola, and/or a cacao "magic shell."
Both Amar and Koku will be at Chefs Club Counter, located at 62 Spring Street at the corner of Lafayette Avenue, through the summer. (646-438-9172; chefsclubcounter.com)