Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Aqua, San Francisco CA

With one night left in San Francisco our dinner plans were originally to experience the Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton; these plans fell through when their daily menu changed and left nothing desirable to the tongue of my traveling companions. Scrambling for another option around noon the day of dinner, a longtime fan of Michael Mina’s cooking with reservations already secured for Arcadia the following night, I opted to look in on his previous home, Aqua - now under the guidance of Mr. Laurent Manrique. Seeing about 20 menu options that appealed to me and many that were okayed by my mother and aunt we called and easily made reservations for 7:30pm at a table near the window – excellent.

Arriving at Aqua I honestly couldn’t believe this was a Michelin 2 Star establishment – located in the heart of the financial district, mostly unadorned aside from a valet stand, and literally next-door to Tadich Grill I didn’t even realize it was there when we went to Tadich (only to find it closed) two days prior. Arriving early we parked the car with the valet and got out to stroll around, take pictures by the cable cars, and look at other touristy stuff. At 7:15 we returned, checked in with the three lovely young ladies at the hostess stand, and were seated immediately at the front window as promised.

A loud restaurant in general, most of the noise was largely confined to the bar, much like Gary Danko – thankfully we were further from the bar than we were at Gary Danko. Sitting down we were unfortunately treated to a rather ugly spat between husband and wife at a table next to us, but this ended approximately 15 minutes into the meal when the man stormed off, thankfully. Sitting down I was amused by the cleverly folded starfish napkin and unique lights on each table. Moments later our waiter, an aloof yet friendly fellow named Carl arrived dressed in black tie with gold vest to pour water, offer drinks, and explain the menu. While everything on the menu looked delectable, I will admit I was a little miffed when I asked if I could order the tasting while my mother and aunt partook of the prix fixe and was bluntly told “no, the chef requires the whole table.” While I understand this, the least Carl could have done was ask Chef Manrique to be sure – to be fair, I’ve never once had a chef say no when I made this request as many like to show off their creativity (part of the reason we’d originally planned on The Ritz was because Chef Siegel stated he would be delighted to prep the 9 course for me while my family ate prix fixe, so long as they didn’t mind the wait between dishes.)

Drinks were poured we were next brought three types of bread from the ancillary servers – a wonderful multigrain, a ciabatta roll, and an olive-sourdough that certainly contended for best sourdough of the trip – all were brought warm and the butter was room temperature and well salted.

Carl returned a few moments later to take our orders and this time assented that I could add an extra course, if desired, to the prix fixe. Orders placed, Carl left and the staff returned approximately 5 minutes later with a trio of Amuse bouche. Californian Sardine with Meyer Lemon and Saffron (left) was a rather pungent dish and did not set well with me despite it being quite fresh – my mother and aunt wouldn’t even taste given their distaste for “fishy fish”. Butternut Squash and Turnip Soup with Pear (middle) was an excellent soup and although not quite as delicious as the similar amuse at Gary Danko, served as a great taste to clear the mouth of the sardine. The final amuse, an Ahi Croquette with Pepper Paste (right) was certainly the most delicious of the amuse and would have made an excellent appetizer in larger portion. Perfectly seared ahi was herb and potato coated and flash fried with a bit of tomato pepper compote beneath – like an even better version of Bouchon’s Cod brandade.

Great amuses were followed by our first courses by approximately 10 minutes and all tasted as great as they looked. For my aunt and mother, each selected the Dungeness Crab with Meyer Lemon, Cucumber Caviar, and Curry Poppy Seed Vinaigrette. In a trip that contained many crab salads for each of them, both agreed that this was the most beautifully presented and best tasting with the succulent crab wrapped in thinly sliced cucumber and topped with cucumber caviar and the vinaigrette with the meyer lemon compote resting to the sides. Hints of spice, citrus, seafood, and multiple contrasting textures were superbly orchestrated and the chip in the middle had hints of lemon and sesame-seed for some bitterness and crunch.

For myself, two appetizers were ordered and served as two separate courses before the mains. The first, Foie Gras Terrine with Gold Dust, French Butter Pear, Heirloom Chicory and Hazelnut Pear Brioche harkened back to the day prior at French Laundry and was nearly as good, albeit less creamy. Two perfect medallions of Foie and a fried piece of seared foie sat on opposite sides of the plate and were transected by gold paint and a salad of chicory and pear plus greens and almonds while the Brioche was served on another plate fresh from the oven. On its own, the Foie had a great mouth feel and a mild pear-like sweetness that peaked its flavor, but when spread on the incredible brioche (the best sweet Brioche I’ve ever tasted) and paired with the textural components at the center of the dish it truly came to life. I was somewhat disheartened when I requested a second piece of brioche and was told that this would take~10 minutes time as each piece was individually made with the terrine – but understood. Perhaps the service at The French Laundry had given me unrealistic expectations. Regardless, amongst the top 4 Foie presentations ever, along with The French Laundry, BoMA, and Eleven Madison Park.

My second appetizer, a $22 addition, was the Langoustine Sashimi with California Osetra Caviar, Celery Root, and Yuzu-Rosemary Vinaigrette. While the Foie was good, I’ve had plenty in my life – I’d never had raw Langoustines before and had never even seen them offered. Beautifully presented, incredibly fresh, and dainty in texture to a degree I’d not have expected, the dish was a winner in all ways. Each piece of sashimi was topped with a chip of Vidalia onion for texture, while the interspersed Caviar sat atop a Celery Roo/Tellaggio cheese flan that provided pefect complement. The minimal lemon taste from the Yuzu-Rosemary dots along the edge added a subtle Japanese nuance that enhanced the “sashimi” feel of the dish and showed Manrique’s talents with citrus to yet another degree.

Shortly following my second appetizer, our mains arrived and were equally well presented, more substantial in portion, and possibly even more tantalizing on the tongue. My dish, Ahi Tuna with Quince paste, Coffee Scented Date, Lentil, and Cardamom Jus was the least impressive of the three selections, but still quite excellent. Flawlessly seared tuna that was light in the mouth and very well could have been alive moments ago from the texture was well complimented with the “al dente” lentils that had the faint essence of coffee and the sweetness of dates offset by the pungency of cardamom - lots of contrast, lots of spice, but nothing overpowering the other components. In the corner of the plate sat what I believe was a hollowed-out sprout refilled with a cheese and quince paste that was completely different from the dish and seemed somewhat out of place, but was still quite wonderful.

My Aunt’s dish, Striped Sea Bass with Saffron Rice, Chorizo, Green Almond, and Fruits de Mer with Mussel and Razor Clam was a very adventurous choice for her given her hesitancy to try non-perch or tilapia dishes, but honestly – how can you go wrong with line caught sea bass. While a great preparation with an incredibly moist and flaky fish, the hefty quality of the chorizo/rice/chopped fruits de mer combo significantly blunted the mild fish and while it was a great preparation for my aunt, I would have preferred the fish shine more at the forefront. That said, I will admit a particular fondness for the saffron foam and crunchy green almonds which added two unique textures to the dish and provided for an beautiful presentation.

My mother’s dish was the true “wow” dish of the mains and tasted just as good as one would expect from the citrus-infused appetizers. John Dory with Crushed Butter Potato, Citrus Escarole, Black Truffle, and Lemon Verbena showed off an incredible eye for detail with the seemingly sous vide fish resting on a bed of what I can only assume to be half butter/half potato and then topped with a crunchy escarole, shavings of black truffle, and mild lemon verbena that despite their contrasting woodsy/earthy and citrusy/vanilla essence somehow worked like magic. An incredibly complex dish that seemed almost from the realm of molecular gastronomy, the entire experience simply “worked.”

Main plates cleared (IE, I happily got to finish some of each of my companion’s foods) the next course was dessert and once again the dishes did not fail to impress. Ample in size and beautiful in preparation each dish selected showed the same eye and attention for detail as the previous courses and alongside Alex, Trotter’s, TRU, and The French Laundry there was not a single option on the menu that “played it safe” by sticking to boring ingredients and simple presentation.

The above noted, I admittedly went with the most boring – yet scrumptious of the desserts. Quite frankly, Quince is impossible to obtain save for 1 month of the year in Ohio, thus when I saw Quince Soufflé with Fall Fruit Compote on the menu I was thrilled. A good soufflé is heaven and rivaled only by bread pudding in my mind and this was the best fruit soufflé I’ve ever tasted. Without relying on heavy creams or chocolates, the pastry chef managed to create airy decadence with a butter poached fruit compote of quince, pear, and apple that was truly delicious. Ample in size yet light on the stomach – wonderful.

For my mother and Aunt two of the more fancy desserts were selected. The first, Éclair with Peanut Butter Mousseline and Coffee Tuile was wonderfully light – just like the soufflé, yet actually more delicious. Vanilla ladyfingers topped with airy and light peanut butter sat lengthwise on the plate with small samplings of caramel covered peanuts highlighting the corners and a small pot of caramel penut butter in the opposite corner. Atop one ladyfinger sat a crunchy piece of peanut brittle while behind the second sat an incredible concept – tapioca prepared in sweet espresso. With so many interesting pieces and textures on a single plate it was wonderful to mix and match to experience different sensations – truly remarkable.

The second dessert, my mothers, was another wonderful exploit in citrus and the heaviest dish of the three. Tahitian Vanilla Bar Glacé with Walnut Cake, Pear & Lime Sorbet, Roasted Pear was essentially an ice-cream cake with a thin layer of dense cake at the bottom, then topped with a layer of pear and lime sorbet, and finished with creamy vanilla topping. Complementing the dish were juicy buttered pears, a pear chip, and some walnut brittle. Well presented, great tasting, and small enough to not be overfilling given its density.

Following the meal our plates were collected and the relative bargain of a bill was delivered with the mignardises – a creamy lemon marshmallow, sweet raspberry jelly, buttery cookie, quince financier, and a chocolate mint. While not the best presentation ever, certainly each delicious. My mother joked afterwards, however, about where her take home gift was – and her rose.

All told, Aqua is an excellent deal for the quality and presentation of the food. The service and the room is a little stuffy and they certainly do not go “out of their way” like Gary Danko, The French Laundry, Alex, Eleven Madison Park, or Charlie Trotter’s to be accommodating. Given my preference for seafood I will admit I found the food amongst the very best of my trip and can’t wait to someday compare Manrique’s creations to those at Providence, La Bernadin, or L20, but for now I can happily say that Aqua is the best “seafood restaurant” I’ve ever experienced.

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