Thursday, September 14, 2006

This Week's Restaurant Review: Aqua in SF

People ask me if there are any restaurants I don’t like and I tell them of course. It’s just that I do my homework and really scout these places before I eat there. That way I have a good time and enjoy a great meal. Believe me, when I do find a place that I don’t like, I will not hesitate to write a bad review. In the meantime, here’s a review of another restaurant that is absolutely incredible.


I have never been a huge fan of really expensive, high-end cuisine. For one, I’m a big eater who likes hefty portions. Two sprigs of parsley and a couple of slices of cucumber with a speck of pate or whatever doesn’t excite me. Plus, I’m not wealthy, so to spend $200 or $300 on a meal for two (which is not unusual in San Francisco) doesn’t really appeal to me either. So, when a close friend invited Angelina and I to a place called Aqua, I was skeptical. I looked at the menu online and saw a lot of expensive-sounding, very fancy entrees, and I thought, uh-oh – this is just the kind of restaurant I have attempted to avoid. Well, first impressions can be wrong, and I’m happy to say I had nothing to worry about. Aqua is amazing! The food, the atmosphere, the service, the whole package – all the way from the table cloths to the glassware to the plates – this place offers a five-star dining experience that is unsurpassed. I felt like royalty from the minute I walked in the door, like I was a guest at some really rich gourmet’s palatial home. The chef’s name at Aqua is Laurent Manrique, who several years ago was chosen Chef of the Year by Bon Apetit magazine. I can see why. His food is flawless in every way. The dishes we sampled on the evening we were there can best be described as innovative, unique and world-class. Nothing escapes this guy’s attention to detail. They say that genius is in the details, and in this case it couldn’t have been more appropriate. First, there was the service. Our waiter was one of the most professional, knowledgeable and just plain genuine servers I have probably ever had serve me. At a lot of these higher-end places, the waiters walk around with a large implement up their derriere, and heaven forbid if you ask them something they don’t feel like answering. I can’t stand that whole scene – when they roll their eyes or talk down to you or act superior just because they have the privilege of working at a nice establishment. There was none of this from our waiter. He was such a nice person that I really wanted to invite him to go out with us later and have a drink. But, obviously, he was busy. Then, there is the menu at Aqua. It doesn’t have a ton of items on it, which is always a good sign. I’m tired of those places that have 100 items on their menu. When I see that, I figure the place does a lot of things in a really mediocre way. It’s better, in my opinion, to concentrate on doing a few really special entrees correctly. I don’t want to diss Greek restaurants, but I’ve actually been to a few that try to offer their patrons every single dish ever created by the human race. I don’t trust a menu that features gyros, eggplant parmesan and sushi on the same page. But, I also don’t like the cheeseburger, cheeseburger, Pepsi, Pepsi thing were there aren’t enough items on the menu. So, it’s a fine line and Aqua walked it perfectly, featuring 10 appetizers, nine entrees and six desserts, each one sounding like a little slice of heaven. For $68, you can have one from each category, which is very reasonable. There are certain items, however, where there is an additional charge. For instance, if you decide you want to try the Osetra Select Caviar, it will set up back an additional $70. But, let me tell you – we tried it and it was worth every added penny. Accompanied with a caramelized onion tart and smoked sturgeon Crème Fraiche, the caviar was superb and came with toast, potato pancakes and a cornucopia of incredible condiments, like chopped egg, chopped scallions and more. It was a journey into gourmet nirvana and an experience I will not soon forget. We also tried the Trio of Cold Artisan Foie Gras (an additional $5), which features Smoked Torchon, Au Poive Terrine and Syrah poached Foie Gras. I know it’s not pretty what they do to the ducks to make the foie gras, but in this case, the poor little birds did not die in vain. It was incredible! We also had the Select Seasonal Oysters with a Red Wine Mignonette sauce. The only word I can use to describe this dish is not really a word. It’s more like a really satisfied grunt. After the appetizers, the culinary bandwagon of bliss just kept rolling down the track. We had the Ahi Tuna, which came with Sausalito Watercress, Yucca, and an incredible “au Poivre” Coconut Rum Sauce. It was excellent – the tuna was cooked just right and I would have been content to just drink a big vat of the sauce, maybe even bathe in it. We also tried the Scottish Salmon, which came with a Vidalia Onion Soubise, Cucumber and Radish Salad with a Turmeric Vinaigrette. Salmon isn’t normally my favorite fish, but this piece was so fresh I imagined that it had been pulled out of the bay just minutes before hitting the plate. To top of this trilogy of magnificence, we had the Brioche Crusted Halibut, with English peas, bacon and lettuce served with a Poultry Jus. The fish was expertly prepared, crispy and crunchy on the outside and moist on the inside. For dessert, we all had the Coconut Souffle with exotic fruit and chocolate pearls. It takes an extra 15 minutes to prepare, but who cares? It was the best soufflé I have ever had, not too sweet and just the right texture. If I had one small criticism about Aqua, it might be that the tables are right on top of each other. I leaned back a couple of times and actually elbowed the guy sitting at the next table. It really wasn’t that big of a deal, but I like to at least find one negative thing to say in my reviews, because otherwise I look like a total pushover. Aqua is located at 252 California Street in San Francisco and is open for lunch and dinner Monday through Friday and for dinner on Saturday. To go there without a reservation would just be silly. If you are looking for a complete dining experience with all the little things that will make it memorable, Aqua is more than worth it. When I left the place, I almost felt guilty that I had had such an amazing time there. As Wayne and Garth of “Wayne’s World” used to say, “We’re not worthy.”

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