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Diner: Colorful Fusion

Aqua offers hip, New York-style dining via an inventive menu and a sophisticated ambiance

By Lora Arduser · July 19th, 2006 · Diner

Go: 1020 Delta Ave., Mount Lookout

Call: 513-919-2782

Hours: 5-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 5-11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Sushi is served until midnight Monday-Thursday and 1 a.m. Friday and Saturday

Prices: Moderate to expensive

Payment: Major credit cards accepted

Red Meat Alternatives: Sushi, seafood, tofu and chicken

Accessibility: Yes; valet parking is available

Grade: A

At last, New York has come to me, in the form of aqua. The restaurant opened quietly in Mount Lookout Square last May, but the word of mouth has created an underlying buzz that has the space vibrant on a Tuesday night.

Aqua's understated stone exterior unfolds into a minimalist world of sophisticated glassware and a stylized soundtrack that swirl you into the otherworld of hiposity.

The sushi bar gleams proudly in the front window and seating includes what looks like traditional Japanese seating at first glance. But cutout spaces lurk beneath the white linen so that diners don't have to give up their American comfort and aqua doesn't lose a lick of ambiance.

I never feel comfortable in these environments, but for some reason aqua was working for me. Maybe it was the line of iced champagne buckets beckoning at the entrance or the Riedel wine glasses I've coveted in the Williams-Sonoma catalog. Regardless, as I slid into our plush booth I soon became one with my newly acquired hipness.

Aqua's owners Han Lin (also owner of Mei in Montgomery) and Jason Druso (former general manager of Carlo and Johnny's) leave little to chance in their new venture. Everything from the all-male serving staff donned in classic Johnny Cash black to the reverse-flow sinks in the bathroom show a painstaking attention to detail.

This fastidiousness climaxes in executive chef Stefan Kraus' menu. Kraus says people label aqua's food as fusion, but he notes this label often encourages chefs to overdo, resulting in what he calls "confusion food."

Kraus says, "I like to be simple in preparation in flavor. I pay a lot of attention to detail without unnecessary ingredients or frills."

Kraus, who worked as sous chef at the Maisonette and as Jeff Ruby's corporate chef, offers an intriguing bill of fare that leans toward Asian flavors with entrées like a Wasabi Pea Crusted Halibut with pickled ginger butter sauce ($20). But dishes such as the Roasted Chicken with fingerling potatoes, fresh peas, blue-foot mushrooms and a truffle-sage reduction ($19) also hint at his past. Unlike the more traditional heavy French sauces, however, Kraus favors reductions and fruit and vegetable purees for his flavor punches.

We decided to forego figuring out the proper rules of etiquette and started with sushi before diving into appetizers. I've never been able to deal with the raw aspect of sushi, so my husband handled that particular duty. He ordered California rolls ($6.50) for me and barbequed freshwater eel ($3), spicy tuna rolls ($6.75) and smoked salmon ($3) for himself. California rolls are usually made with white, rubbery imitation crab, but aqua's were filled with a seasoned variety that added eye appeal, which is innate to the fishier varieties of sushi rolls. My eyes teared from the beautiful pain of the wasabi wallop as my husband assured me his picks were also "kick ass."

For appetizers I followed the server's advice, ordering the Pickled Vegetable Napoleon ($5). It was an ethereal dish of thinly sliced daikon radish, carrot and cucumber interwoven with edemame and parsnip purees. The sharp vinaigrette balanced the sweetness of the parsnip like a perfect seesaw. My husband stayed on the raw wagon and ordered the Kobe beef carpaccio with enoki mushrooms and kaiware salad ($9). The razor-thin slices of beef seemed to melt on his fork in midair.

I decided to switch hemispheres for my entrée and ordered the Puerto Rican Spiced Pork with applewood smoked bacon, braised cabbage and an apple cider reduction ($19). My husband changed states -- raw to cooked -- with the Orange and Horseradish Glazed Tuna with a sesame seed vinaigrette and cucumber sauce ($25).

I was a little disappointed with my French-cut pork chop because I was envisioning something with sofrito rather than the pear-maple puree topping that arrived at our table. It seemed closer to Kentucky than Puerto Rico. While it wasn't what I expected, it tasted excellent nonetheless.

My husband's entrée was right on target. The inspired pairing of orange and horseradish was a mouth explosion, and the cucumber puree was alarmingly flavorful for something that came from such a mild vegetable.

Aqua's house-made dessert choices also pull from French and Japanese cuisines: a chocolate mousse with fresh raspberries, green tea cheesecake with pomegranate sauce, goat-cheese tart with dried cranberries and candied walnuts and a trio of crème brûlée with blood orange, vanilla and ginger. We wanted the biggest flavor bang in the least amount of food, so the crème brûlée ($7) it was. The vanilla was good if a little safe. The blood orange was too much like a creamsicle for my taste, but the ginger was creamy, peppery and gone in a second into our overstuffed, yet ever-so-hip, bellies. ©



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