Thursday, April 13, 2006

Aqua Man Doing Well

252 California Street
San Francisco, CA 94111
Chef Laurent Manrique (formerly Campton Place)
Lunch weekdays
Dinner nightly

Aqua on Urbanspoon

Last tried: April 2006

Chef Laurent Manrique has his work cut out for him. Aqua is not only as packed as it was when it first garnered acclaim under George Morrone in the early nineties and later under Michael Mina, it is now so well known that it has become as much of a San Francisco institution as Fisherman's Wharf. Just as everyone in the country knows Fisherman's Wharf for cheap seafood, they know the name Aqua for upscale seafood. Indeed, the restaurant staff seemed to be more accustomed to visitors filling the hundred-plus seats of the dining room than San Francisco residents.

The long polished bar, enormous mirrors on the walls, high ceilings, and towering floral arrangements are all still very striking, but the plush decor that was considered au courant ten years ago now looks a little like a throwback to the set of Dynasty. Manrique's menu is similarly lavish, yet it is anything but dated. Almost as impressive was our server's experienced versatility in serving styles while describing the menu options to a group of tourists dressed in jeans and T-shirts without the slightest bit of condescension and efficiently handling of a table of business people clearly entrenched in a dinner meeting right next to them, while managing a table of German and French speakers who spoke very little English and other groups of diners ordering the seven-course tasting menu. We ordered not just the seven-course tasting menu but requested additional dishes to be incorporated and changes to the wine pairing. Our server effortlessly facilitated all requests without missing a beat.

The amuse bouche consisting of a small cup of creamy salsify soup decorated with a drop of olive oil and a thin, deep-fried taro chip topped with ahi mousseline and pickled diced carrot was a delightful taste combination of salty, sweet, creamy, crispy and tart. The first course that followed as just as impressive, a miniature cannoli filled with smoked sturgeon, caviar, and chopped chives. The only thing that fell short of absolute perfection was the caviar, which was a little mushy missing the pop of fresher pearls. The lemon-olive oil sauce drizzled around the cannoli was the ideal condiment to delicately flavor and season this appetizer. The meal was off to a very good start.

I was particularly impressed with Manrique's interpretations of raw fish. I love Japanese food, but consequently I am very picky about raw fish. Putting tuna tartare on the menu is akin to performing Beethoven's 5th -- everyone knows every single note so it had better be flawless. Manrique's take on this familiar dish did not disappoint. I loved the generous square of thick cut chunks of pink tuna presented with a raw quail egg on top, mimicking steak tartare, with slivers of white almond, droplets of spicy harissa, a dollop of lemon date chutney, and a chiffonade of basil and cilantro around the edge of the plate. Continuing the steak tartare theme, our server mixed all of the ingredients tableside. I was pleasantly surprised that these seemingly aggressive flavors, including the dusting of cumin on the plate, came together quite harmoniously to create a new version of tuna tartare. The unadorned rectangle of masa served with the tuna was just the right vehicle to scoop up the well-spiced mixture. The 2004 Saint M Riesling from Pfalz, Germany had the right balance of sweetness and mineral to match this bold combination.

Even more striking was the fluke sashimi with balsamic pickled pumpkin, fried shallots, and a tangle of daikon sprouts and shiso shreds, sprinkled with toasted pumpkin seeds. I normally prefer fresh raw fish to be presented as simply as possible, but these seemingly incongruous elements combined to create an explosive and brilliant new flavor and texture combination. The 2004 Greco with delicate flavors of apricot, fern, and mint was a gorgeous pairing with this innovative crudo dish.

The next course was a parmesan-black pepper souffle in a miniature copper pot with sea urchin and crab inside, served with a side of fresh crab claw and lump meat mixed with crunchy cucumber. While I could not taste the sea urchin, the souffle was fluffy, creamy and hot, with the savory parmesan adding a pungent streak of savory flavor. The only flaw was that there were bits of crab shell on the bottom of the souffle. Had I not scooped up every bit of souffle though, I might not have noticed. The 2003 Colin-Deleger Chassagne-Montrachet, 1er Cru, paired with this dish worked quite well. This oaky and opulent white burgundy paired equally nicely with the celery root soup from the a la carte menu, served with a small trembling circle of black truffle flan and golden fried pieces of boneless frog's legs.

After such ornate offerings, I was surprised that the foie gras was served quite simply with minimal adornment. The thin strips of smoked duck meat accompanying the seared foie gras were chewy and salty, contrasting with the sweet muscat grapes and toasty almond slivers. The foie gras was clearly the star of this dish, and this relatively stark presentation, together with the 2003 Cuvee Marie Jurancon, was very effective in highlighting its richness.

The penultimate savory dish was a turbot with a side of cauliflower and cuttlefish in red wine lobster butter. This ambitious dish, however, did not come together successfully. The cauliflower was lovely but the cuttlefish was fishy and dissonant. Oddly, despite the seafood connection, the side did not match the turbot which was overly chewy and diluted in flavor in comparison. Still, I thought it was an interesting attempt. The elegant and earthy 2002 Beaune by Bouchard et Fils matched the sauce but not the fish. The last course before dessert was a beautiful, medium rare ribeye beef tenderloin bathed in beef consomme poured on top of shavings of foie gras and shards of veal cheeks. Although I would have preferred the consomme to be warmer and the foie gras and veal were superfluous in the dish, the overall flavor was rich and satisfying. The wine pairing was a 1998 Rocche dei Manzoni from Piemonte.

For a palate cleanser, the kitchen sent out tiny glass goblets of fluffy meringue on top of an olive oil madeleine with basil chiffonade and lemon zest. Again, I am not sure this combination worked but it was certainly more intriguing than the standard sorbet. With dessert, Manrique again showed off his souffle expertise. The coconut souffle was delicate, creamy, and not too sweet yet with a sweet crust around the edge like the browned top of a perfectly baked muffin.

While not everything worked, I admired Chef Manrique for pushing the envelope and found that I actually favored the more avant-garde offerings such as the fluke and the sturgeon cannoli as opposed to the more standard French dishes such as the souffles and the celery root soup, despite his expert execution. I hope he continues to move Aqua in that adventurous direction.

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