Bringing Rustic Portuguese Food to Manhattan

George Mendes in his new cervejaria style restaurant, Lupulo, set to open the week of April 20. (Photo by Alexandre Soares for Voices of NY)

George Mendes in his new cervejaria-style restaurant, Lupulo, set to open the week of April 20. (Photo by Alexandre Soares for Voices of NY)

The man is moving through a cloud of dust particles floating in the air.

A dozen construction workers sand, drill, and saw as he continues to tour the space.

“Here you’ll have the mariscos,” he says, using the Portuguese word for seafood, and then he points to the half-oval bar, which takes up a big part of the space. “You’ll be able to eat here, have a glass of wine or a beer after work.”

He goes on to describe the selection of craft beers that will flow at the bar, the blue and white ceramic tiles, the large wood burning oven, the menu, and, with every word, it seems as though the dust is settling, the cardboard disappearing, the plastic wraps are gone, and the vision of the promised restaurant appears: a traditional Portuguese restaurant, cervejaria-style, in Chelsea.

The rooster is a national emblem of Portugal. Mendes has named one at Lupulo in memory of his father; another can be found at his other restaurant, Aldea. (Photo by Alexandre Soares for Voices of NY)

The rooster is a national emblem of Portugal. Mendes has named one at Lupulo in memory of his father; another can be found at his other restaurant, Aldea. (Photo by Alexandre Soares for Voices of NY)

“I always knew I wanted to create a place like this, with rustic Portuguese cooking, but I was very focused on Aldea,” George Mendes, 42, says, speaking of his Michelin star restaurant in the Flatiron district. “Then this opportunity came along.”

The opportunity was a large corner space at 29th Street and 6th Avenue, where Lupulo, which means “hops” in Portuguese, will open its doors next week.

Ethnic Eats-04Mendes modeled the space after a cervejaria, the kind of restaurant in Portugal where you go to get simply cooked seafood, straightforward grilled meats, and a couple of beers, usually around a bar which accounts for much of the seating.

“For me, this restaurant was a natural progression,” the chef explains. “It came from a desire, that grew in the last few years, to get closer to the food that I grew up with.”

(Photo by Alexandre Soares for Voices of NY)

(Photo by Alexandre Soares for Voices of NY)

Born to Portuguese parents – his father was a carpenter and factory worker, his mother ran a house-cleaning business – Mendes grew up in Danbury, Connecticut, where his family would gather every Sunday for a meal. “There were always between 25 and 30 people,” he says, remembering lunches that could stretch on until close to the dinner hour.

After high school, he enrolled in the Culinary Institute of America in New York. After graduating, he spent 17 years between Europe and the United States, learning his craft with some of the world’s greatest culinary masters, but far from the flavors of his childhood.

From Bouley, in New York, where he met his mentor, chef David Bouley, he went to L’Arpege, in Paris, to train under Alain Passard. Back in the United States, he became the executive chef of Le Zoo, and then worked with chef Sandro Gamba at Lespinasse in Washington D.C.

In 2003, he crossed the ocean again to work with Martin Berasategui at his three-star Michelin restaurant in Spain. There, on the Iberian Peninsula, he was getting closer to the style that would define his career, but when he returned to New York, to work at Tocqueville, he continued to prepare American cuisine. It was only in 2009, when he left to start his own restaurant, that the trip back home took a decisive turn.

“Aldea was the first big step to getting closer to my roots,” he explains.

With its rustic yet refined dishes, the restaurant has earned a one-star rating from the Michelin Guides the last four years, along with two-star reviews from New York Magazine and The New York Times. In 2011, Mendes was named one of Food & Wine magazine’s 10 “Best New Chefs.”

(Photo by Alexandre Soares for Voices of NY)

(Photo by Alexandre Soares for Voices of NY)

“Aldea was born in a very creative, fine dining environment. I always knew that for the next restaurant I wanted to keep it more casual and traditional,” he says. “I’m the kind of person who has to be constantly stimulated, intrigued and challenged. It’s about having a balance of both worlds.”

Mendes lives in New York City, but he frequently visits the Ironbound, in Newark, looking for that same balance: It’s in the heavily Portuguese neighborhood that he shops for some of the unique ingredients used in his recipes, where he enjoys some fresh grilled sardines and a cold beer while watching a soccer game of the Portuguese league on television.

Last fall, Mendes published “My Portugal: Recipes and Stories” (Stewart, Tabori & Chang), in which he introduces the reader to the world of Portuguese cuisine with 125 recipes. He also shares tales of his childhood and stories of traveling the country to investigate the origins of favorite dishes and understand the world where his parents were born. Mendes says his frequent trips to Portugal to do research for the book “were very inspirational” and influenced him “heavily.”

george-mendes-cookbook-topOne of the places he visited was a small restaurant in Ferreirós do Dão, run by João “Faia” Martinha, a man who had lived in Connecticut and owned a restaurant Mendes’ family used to visit.

Faia moved back to Portugal after retiring and for years Mendes had wanted to visit his new place. When it finally happened, in 2013, “ it was an emotional experience.”

“I had no idea, back when I was a kid, how Faia’s cooking would influence me,” he says. “It’s a powerful thing to be a chef for so long, then rediscover this cooking style and realize that it’s actually where you started out.”

After these trips, the spirit of the Portuguese kitchen was on his mind more than ever. Mendes found himself  “less preoccupied with appealing to a modern New York palate” and “not afraid to bring forth more regional and classical cooking.” He believes he was “a better, braver cook” and felt ready to dig deeper into his upbringing. That’s when the opportunity for Lupulo arrived.

The restaurant is opening at a time where there’s no restaurant in Manhattan serving exclusively Portuguese food. With frequent television show appearances, two restaurants and a book, Mendes is now being seen as a self-made ambassador for Portuguese food in the city.

(Photo by Alexandre Soares for Voices of NY)

(Photo by Alexandre Soares for Voices of NY)

“Maybe I am a little bit,” he admits. “The book was definitely an introduction, but it takes a lot [to make a cuisine popular] in New York City. We are starting to have an identity separate from Spain, but we need more restaurants, more events celebrating the cuisine, the culture, the wines.”

On Lupulo’s menu, there will be different versions of salt cod (bacalhau, in Portuguese), caldo verde (the kale soup Portuguese have been eating for centuries), fresh grilled sardines, oven-roasted octopus, custard tarts (pastéis de nata) for dessert, and many seafood and fire-roasted dishes. “It’s all very rustic, with deep, gutsy flavors, a lot of marinades, a lot of tempura,” the chef explains, mentioning the technique introduced to Japan by Portuguese Jesuit missionaries.

With the new space, Mendes says he’s looking to recreate the kind of “authentic experience” of those long family lunches he experienced years ago in Connecticut. “Like you’re at home with your father and mother, that kind of thing,” he explains.  And, for that, he recruited the ultimate asset: Fernanda Mendes, his mom.

“She’s getting ready to come and see what we’re doing. Like any Portuguese mother, she will have some ideas,” he says.

 

2 Comments

  1. Congratulations, a lot of success in the new adventure!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*