Mussel systems

Aqua
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paulr@sfbg.com

When last we looked in on Aqua, the prospect seemed rather marbly and banklike, and the menu included paella. Paella is not a dish you should order even at most Spanish restaurants, let alone at a high-end seafood house, but a member of my party went ahead and ordered it anyway — in the heedlessness of youth — and was afterwards disappointed. "What did you expect?" I asked, from the unassailable position of someone who'd opted for Pacific swordfish grilled in a sheath of prosciutto, the sort of dish you'd expect to find, and enjoy, at a place like Aqua. "I don't know," was the glum rejoinder.

Years passed, youth faded, and we did not return. The meteoric George Morrone, who'd been in the kitchen when Aqua opened in 1991 and was the chef during our visit — which is what tells me it was in '91 or '92 — gave way after a few years to Michael Mina, who ran the show for more than a decade until he left to open his eponymous Union Square restaurant in 2004. His successor was Laurent Manrique, he of the recent foie gras kerfuffle. Manrique does offer foie gras on his Aqua menu, but the offer is a muted one: there is no foie gras cart plying the dining room (whose look, incidentally, seems to have been softened to tones of a summer twilight). There had been such a cart at Campton Place, Manrique's previous gig. When the foie gras cart and the cheese cart were simultaneously at large in that rather snug dining room, one had a brief vision of dandified bumper cars.

You (which is to say, I) would not necessarily expect a chef renowned for his treatments of foie gras to be the ideal head of a kitchen largely devoted to the cooking of seafood. And yet if this is a paradox, it is a spectacularly successful one; for much (and maybe most) seafood needs a certain amount of dressing up to show well, and at Aqua, Manrique's instinct for meatiness results in plates of fish neatly balanced between elegance and muscularity.

Part of the Manrique magic has to do with bold spicing. Ahi tuna tartare, for instance, has become something of a commonplace in the past decade. The fish's reddish purple flesh looks a lot like beef and has its own sort of intensity. But the dish becomes special at Aqua when the cubes are mixed with Moroccan spices (these weren't specified but had a currylike aura) and a quail egg yolk as a binding agent. (Aqua's à la carte menu is, like the paella, a thing of the past; today you choose three courses for $72 or a more elaborate tasting menu, with optional wine pairings, for $109.) Across the table, meanwhile, a plate of albacore carpaccio — tissue-thin bolts of flesh looking almost like ice shavings — arrived under a colorful bloom of Fresno chile rings, slivers of daikon radish, and bits of fried shallot: springtime on the tundra.

A whiff of curry subtly recurred in the buttery chardonnay jus our server poured around a grilled filet of walu, one of those marvelously meaty white fish from the deep waters around the Hawaiian Islands. The fish wore a straw hat of pommes alumettes (crispy filaments of potato), while a few quartered baby artichokes lurked at the bottom of the plate. Even meatier was sturgeon, cooked en papillote (in a paper bag) and presented as three cylinders — a kind of faux roulade hedged with braised baby spinach and finished with a rich duck jus, also poured by the server from a small pitcher.

Even if you confine yourself to the more modest prix fixe — and we found three courses to be just the right amount of food — you will be given a few extra treats. There are the warm breads — olive, sourdough, multigrain — in constant circulation through the dining room.

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