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Aqua

August 1, 2006

Aqua is one of the very well-established Bay Area fine dining spots that are scattered around the financial district in San Francisco. The epitome of the power lunch/expense account destination, Aqua features a great variety of seafood dishes executed with French influences, ingredients, and preparations. The menu, formerly under the direction of the famous Michael Mina, has, since 2003, been set by executive chef Laurent Manrique, and the choices remain fresh and inventive, as Aqua continues to push the envelope, rather than resting on past glories. The physical backdrop to a meal at Aqua is the posh, tasteful, and classy surroundings one would expect of such a long-revered institution.For one starter, Short Exact ordered the tartare of ahi tuna,

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served with Moroccan spices and herbs and lemon confit. This dish was delicious, and if it weren’t for the spectacular ahi preparation we had at Boulevard recently, we might have viewed the Aqua version even more favorably. Nonetheless, the Moroccan spice assortment is a creative and slightly unusual pairing for the ahi, but the taste of the ahi was still allowed to shine through the spices, and the lemon confit provided a bright backdrop for the interplay of flavors. However, it was a different story with the appetizer of hamachi:

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First off, let us begin by saying this was a very well-executed dish, and in some ways, it was fantastic. Just on a visual level, the presentation was creative, and the geometric layout of the ingredients emphasized the wide disparity of textures, colors, and flavors exhibited by the different ingredients. The rich lightness of the avocado mousseline and the slight bite from the piment d’Espelette — when taken with the bright tartness of the Kaffir lime and the lusciously multidimensional layers of sweetness from the Sharlyn melon — combined to create a new, truly bold, beautiful flavor. But what’s missing here? Of course: the hamachi! The primary ingredient of the dish. The flavors here are bold, but too bold: so much so, that in terms of flavor, the presence of the hamachi is overwhelmed. The hamachi certainly contributes to the texture, but as the raison d’etre of this dish, it should have been given the chance to participate more.

Our entree, the spring garlic risotto,

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served under grillied Hawaiian prawns, with Meyer lemon and tomato vinaigrette, rested on safer ground than the hamachi, but was simultaneously less intriguing. Some flavors here were slightly muted, and in this case, we would have preferred a contrasting ingredient in the tomato vinaigrette, because this dish really can take a greater intensification of flavor, more so than the hamachi. The end result is an admittedly well-prepared melange of slightly too much subtlety. The garlic was an appropriate balance to the very fresh and tasty shrimp, and the risotto had all the right texture, although it was less delectably rich than our most favorite risotti. The final verdict? After experiencing the starters, we had hoped to see an extra dose of creativity in a dish that could really have used it. Still, it was well-prepared and delicious.

As for the service, Short Exact has heard accounts from others about Aqua having snooty, arrogant, or perhaps just poor service. To be honest, we experienced nothing of the sort on our visit. Our waiter had a very thorough knowledge of the ingredients and preparation of all the dishes we ordered. The service was both attentive and courteous, but not overbearing, and since we went later in the afternoon, after the main lunch rush, it was not too slow either. The pace at which different courses were presented was right on.

All in all, Short Exact had a highly enjoyable meal at Aqua, and not just because we were in good company. The food is delicious, and while we believe there are subtle shortcomings (which Short Exact feels obliged to consider carefully because of Aqua’s reputation as an established member of the Bay Area’s fine dining scene), the dishes challenge and engage the palate with interesting flavor combinations and sound culinary technique. This is certainly a recommended dining experience in downtown San Francisco.

RATING:

COST:

252 California Street (between Battery St. and Front St.)
San Francisco, CA 94111
Phone: 415.956.9662
Hours: Mon-Fri, 11:30 am – 2:30 pm; Mon-Thurs, 5:30 pm-10:30 pm; Fri-Sat, 5:30 pm – 11:00 pm; Sun, 5:30 pm – 9:30 pm.

Cuisine: French, Seafood
Neighborhood: Financial District

How to get there: Aqua is located right on the California Street cable car line, and is within reasonable walking distance of Muni lines 1, 2, 5, 6, 7, 10, 12, 14, 21, 31, 38, 41, 71, F, J, K, L, M, N and T. It’s just a couple blocks from the Embarcadero BART/Muni Station.

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