By Christopher Muther Globe Staff, Updated May 4, 2023, 6:00 a.m.
He made a name for himself in New York with his Michelin-starred Portuguese restaurant Aldea, but during a video chat last week, chef George Mendes wasn’t focused on Manhattan’s competitive dining scene. He was reflecting on his Portuguese roots and connections to New England.
“One of my earliest memories was a ferry ride from the Cape to Martha’s Vineyard when I was 8 or 9 years old,” said Mendes, whose parents immigrated to the United States from Portugal in 1969. “There were Sunday afternoon trips to meet with church groups and connect with the Portuguese community in New Bedford and Fall River. There were barbecues with sardines and grilled chicken, and Portuguese beer. Those are my childhood memories and connections I have with the community.”
Mendes, who grew up in a tight-knit Portuguese enclave in Danbury, Conn., is preparing to create a new set of memories in New England. He’ll debut a restaurant at the posh new Raffles Boston Hotel & Residences this summer. Called Amar, the fine-dining restaurant will focus on Portuguese cuisine “through a modern lens.”
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“It’s going to be located on the 17th floor overlooking Copley Square with wonderful sweeping views of the city,” he said. “It really sets the stage to put forth what I like to call a very humble cuisine. I give it a modern interpretation, but my goal is really to stay true to the authenticity of the recipes and then build on them. And that’s really what my vision was at Aldea. It really feels like Amar is going to be a continuation of that path for me.”
Mendes opened Aldea in the Flatiron/Union Square neighborhood of New York in 2009. Shortly after it opened, a New York Times reviewer described the chef’s cuisine as “ambidextrous.”
“One minute you’re nibbling on crisp pig’s ears,” wrote Frank Bruni of the restaurant. “The next you’re carefully maneuvering your spoon under a translucent, quivering orb of concentrated mushroom broth — one of those liquid ravioli that the Spanish alchemist Ferran Adrià made famous — in an avant-garde consommé.”
Beginning in 2010, Mendes was awarded a Michelin star every year Aldea was open. In addition to updating family recipes, he started tinkering with cuisine from Portuguese-colonized countries, such as Brazil. He shuttered the restaurant in February 2020 to “take a break, recharge creatively, and refocus.” After a brief stint at Veranda, a restaurant located in a SoHo hotel, he’s headed to Boston.
“I have a family now,” he said. “My wife and I have a 2-year-old and another one on the way. As much as we love New York, we were itching to move somewhere new. And then this opportunity presented itself.”
He’s currently house hunting in Boston as he works on the menu for Amar (the name of the restaurant means “love” in Portuguese). He was tight-lipped about the specifics of the menu. He said he’ll strive for Amar to be a Michelin-starred venue but doesn’t want it to simply be a fancy hotel restaurant or a restaurant for special occasions. He’s aiming to create a special occasion and everyday restaurant rolled into one tidy package. A spokesperson for the restaurant said prices for entrees and appetizers will be set when the menu has been completed.
“I can tell you that it’s going to be heavily seafood-focused and vegetable-focused,” he said. “I really want to amplify and showcase the bounty of what Boston’s waters have to offer,” he said. “That’s really going to be the starting point. But I don’t like to create a menu until I’m in the kitchen, and we don’t have access to the kitchen at the restaurant yet. But it’s a modern Portuguese menu.”
While there will be similarities between Aldea and Amar, Mendes said he’s not looking to re-create the restaurant. His signature dish at Aldea was duck rice (arroz de pato). He said some version of the dish may appear on the menu at Amar because rice is integral to Portuguese cuisine.
The one dish Mendes guaranteed will be on the menu is his coveted egg tarts. The sweet custard egg tarts will also be available at a first-floor cafe at Raffles, where pastries will be baked onsite. Raffles will have a total of five restaurant and bar options: Amar on the 17th floor, a first-floor patisserie, a more casual neighborhood restaurant located on the first and second floor, a speakeasy on the 18th floor, and the hotel’s chain-wide Long Bar will on the 17th floor. The Singapore Sling originated at Raffles’s Singapore location. Mendes will also be overseeing a lighter, New England-focused menu at the Long Bar.
Mendes has already begun reaching out to local farmers and fishermen, getting back in touch with his New England roots in the process.
“I‘m excited and I’m nervous at the same time thinking about the process,” he said. “Nervousness is healthy. But I’m excited because this is an opportunity to offer a little bit of my heritage and my passion. . . . That’s really the driving thing for me.”