Friday, May 28, 2004
[FOOD] Aqua is a dangerous pleasure
Ate at Aqua for the first time on Wednesday. Turns out it's only a twenty minute walk down the Steps and over to California.

252 California St. (between Battery & Front)
San Francisco, CA 94111

His nibs likes seafood. We were in a celebratory mood. The reservation was for 8:30P and we didn't know how long the walk would take, so we gave ourselves forty-five minutes. We arrived almost a half-hour early, checked-in and hung out in the bar. I looked at the per glass wine prices (whoo boy, were they $$$) and opted for a martini. His nibs had something white. Right on time or maybe a few minutes early we were seated.

Ah, Aqua. Known for its foie and the animal rights activists who spray-painted Executive Chef Laurent Manrique's home, threw acid on his car, wrote threatening letters and trashed his not-yet-opened restaurant and store -- Sonoma Saveurs in Sonoma.

Manrique said he wouldn't cave in to the pressure and by-golly there was foie galore on the Aqua menu up to and including a Whole Foie Gras with Caramelized Granny Smith Apples, Roasted Shallots & Capers.

"You really mean a whole foie?" I asked our server.

"Yes. It's something the restaurant is known for. Usually, it's shared. I think I've probably seen maybe three people who actually ate the whole foie themselves."

I can't imagine. I really can't imagine. I have a hard time sharing half a foie with his nibs. A whole foie? I wouldn't be able to walk home afterwards.

The foie was listed on the menu as "market price" which turned out to be something like $140 for the dish, which is about twice what you'd be paying for foie at the market. Not a terrible markup for what you're getting, but ... what would your total bill be with something like that included?

I couldn't decide what to have so we opted for the seasonal tasting menu with accompanying wine.

The meal started with two amuse bouches, one of which was a small cup of delicious, rich, thick mushroom soup.

The first course was hamachi, sliced thinly with perfectly ripe avocado, also sliced thinly, and sections of ruby red grapefruit vinaigrette. Delicious. Served with MV Laurent-Perrier, Brut Champagne.

Next up was what Aqua called moules frites. In the Aqua incarnation, Yukon Gold potatoes were served alongside an amazing mussel souffle. The small souffle was pierced at table and a portion of curry cream poured inside. The remainder of the pitcher was left to add as desired. Wine: 2002 Domaine Ott Rose, Cotes du Provence.

The next course had my first (and only, alas) taste of foie. The dish was two pieces of Maine scallop topped with sauteed foie gras and served with a marinated mushroom salad and crispy fried garlic. Sounds like too many flavors all jumbled, doesn't it? I had trepidations because of things I've seen other chefs do to foie, but this combination worked perfectly. I still prefer Luke Sung's seared foie with white peaches and custard brioche, but ... the scallop/foie combination served at Aqua gets my stamp of approval. Wine: 2002 Mas de Daumas Gassac (Viognier/Chard/Petit Manseng) -- Vin de Pays.

I also had trepidations about the next course: Maine skate wing, warm butter lettuce, pancetta, herb vinaigrette. I've had skate wing twice in the last month or two. Skate wing must be the new culinary cutting edge substitute on the fish end of the menu for the impossible to get abalone. I've only had skate wing twice in my life and the skate wing at both 500 Jackson and Gary Danko had been ... chewy and stringy. Easy to tell that the skate wing was a much-used muscle.

Aqua had done something to the skate wing to separate the meat from the musculature. The dish was delightful. The wine was exceptional: 2000 Bannister Pinot Noir, Demuth Vineyard, Alexander Valley (Mendocino).

After I asked our server to tell me again which wine it was, he promised to bring me a list after dinner of each wine served with each course, which he did. (You didn't think I was really keeping track of wines, did you?)

Have I mentioned that the service was excellent? The staff were there but not there, everything moved in time, no one rushed, no one stalled. The only hiccup came with the scallops/foie when the dishes were laid down and described and I had to mention that we'd need forks to properly enjoy them.

After the skate wing, we had wild king salmon with morel mushroom, green garlic, delicious potato gnocchi and chive cream. Wine: 2000 Chezeaux Vosne-Romanee, Burgundy. By this time, I was reaching my limits, knowing I had to walk back up the Filbert Steps, so I tossed a couple bites of salmon onto his nibs' plate. We still had dessert to come.

Dessert was warm chocolate cake, mandarin ganache, and Tahitian vanilla bean ice cream served with a glass of Cockburn's 20 year old tawny port. His nibs doesn't do chocolate, so he was offered anything he wanted off the dessert menu. The warm chocolate cake was oozing with chocolate inside -- not quite a marble fudge pudding or chocolate puddle cake, but pretty darn near. Delicious. Delightful.

My double espresso came, served with a small plate of after dessert desserts.

We weren't the last people in the restaurant when we left, but we were close thereto. Dinner had been leisurely and I was feeling at one with the world as we wandered home. Dinner was not cheap, but it was one of the best meals I've had. The price was comparable to the price of dinner at Gary Danko, but what Aqua offered was so much more than Gary Danko. I liked the food better. The service was exceptional. The atmosphere was more relaxed and less stuffy than Gary Danko. Did I mention the food, the glorious food?

I'll save my pennies so we can return to Aqua and sample more of the dishes, see how the other foie dishes compare.

: views from the Hill

Bertold Brecht:   
Everything changes. You can make
A fresh start with your final breath.
But what has happened has happened. And the water
You once poured into the wine cannot be
Drained off again.

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