Aqua, San Francisco
This review is moot. You’ll see why in a second.
To the best of my ability, a timeline:
1991: Aqua opened at 252 California Street in San Francisco with George Morrone as the executive chef.
1993: Michael Mina took the reins in the kitchen as executive chef. He also assumed ownership as a proprietor.
2002: Michael Mina quit Aqua.
2003: Laurent Manrique enters Aqua’s life as the corporate executive chef. He installed Peter Armellino his chef de cuisine.
October, 2006: Aqua was awarded 2 stars in the debut, 2007 edition of the Michelin Guide Rouge San Francisco & Bay Area.
2007: Peter Armellino exits Aqua*, replaced by Ron Boyd.
October, 2007: Aqua was awarded 2 stars in the 2008 edition of the Michelin Guide Rouge San Francisco & Bay Area.
October, 2008: Aqua was awarded 2 stars in the 2009 edition of the Michelin Guide Rouge San Francisco & Bay Area.
December, 2008: Ron Boyd promoted from chef de cuisine to executive chef.
April, 2009: Rumors circulated that 80%-90% of the staff walk out. Ron Boyd left Aqua. Manrique tapped Jason Pringle as the executive chef.
May, 2009: I ate at Aqua.
Late July, 2009: Laurent Manrique severed his six-year relationship with Aqua, citing an ongoing and draining fight among co-owners as a reason.
October, 2009: Aqua was stripped of both of its stars in the 2010 edition of the Michelin Guide Rouge San Francisco & Bay Area. In fact, the restaurant wasn’t even listed in the guide.
April 17, 2010: Aqua closes abruptly, silently. Not even the staff knew until that afternoon that the evening service would be their last.
Late April, 2010: Rumors began circulating that Michael Mina was going to step in to take over Aqua. Rumors were confirmed days later. No word yet as to what, exactly, Mina will do with the restaurant.
So, why, of all the many reviews I need to write, spend time reviewing yesterday’s news?
To demonstrate that you shouldn’t pay attention to everything you hear. If I had, then I would never have kept my reservation for dinner at Aqua in May of 2009.
But let’s assume that everything I heard was true, that there really was a personnel exodus shortly before my visit as rumored, and that the restaurant was so strapped for cash that the flower arrangements and furniture were, indeed, financed out of the pockets of the staff, as Manrique subsequently claimed. And, let’s be generous and assume that Jason Pringle, the newly appointed executive chef at the time hadn’t found his footing quite yet.
Then I’d say, Aqua did a pretty good job of covering it up.
Sure, we waited an inexcusably long time for our table – our 9 p.m. reservation turned into a 9:40 p.m. reservation. No apologies, no acknowledgments. Nothing.
And I was pretty upset when, having been seated, we waited another twenty minutes with no water, no waiter – nothing. But as soon as I pulled the manager aside and gave him a blunt summary of our situation, things improved immediately. At 10 p.m. on a busy Saturday the crowd was beginning to thin.
I had my appetite set on the seven-course “Shellfish Tasting” ($130), which looked fantastic on paper. My guest for the night was my friend Aaron, a veteran eater and a familiar tablemate, whom I was treating to dinner to celebrate his graduation from graduate school at Berkeley (believe it or not, he skipped it to hang out with me).
CLICK HERE to see all of the photos from this meal. To see photos of each dish, click on the course titles below, or no the photos posted in this blog post.
Baked Kumamoto Oysters
Thyme, Sweet Garlic Butter.
Radish, Jalapeño, Red Onion, Caviar.
Sauté of Abalone, Crushed Potato, Fleur De Sel.
Crab & Cauliflower Soufflé, Sea Urchin Chive Butter.
Grilled Maine Lobster
Crosnes, Sunchoke, Red Wine Béarnaise.
Seared Diver Scallop & Braised Veal Breast
Green Garlic, Artichoke, Veal Jus.
Citrus and Pistachio
Pistachio Joconde, Grapefruit Gelée, Gin Sauce.
Almond Tart Shell filled with Rose Cream,
Raspberries, Lychee Granité, and Pistachio Crème Anglaise.
Lemon Verbena Macaron
Pear and Almond Financier
Strawberry Pate de Fruit
Chocolate Chip Cookie
The theme at Aqua, if you haven’t figured it out, is seafood.
Judging by the meal we had, they know how to cook it.
It took the kitchen five courses to send out something that was less than exemplary, a generous plate of nicely cooked lobster marred by a watery red wine béarnaise. It was amateurish at best.
“Baked Kumamoto Oysters” were warm, plump, and sweet, served with a mild garlic butter.
A composed salad of “Geoduck Clam” took me back to childhood conch dives in the Caribbean. We’d take our haul to a couple of fellows on the beach whom we’d gotten to know over the years. Under a pitched umbrella, their stand was piled high with tomatoes, jalapeños, red onions, and limes. They’d pull the conch out of their shells, slice them, and make a salad right there. We’d eat them out of wooden bowls with our hands, the meat so sweet, so good. The geoduck at Aqua, sweet and tender and dressed with peppers and onions, made me feel that childhood sun and hear those waves.
So why the vapid domestic caviar? It had shockingly little flavor.
“Abalone” was so tender that I might not have known it was abalone if the menu hadn’t said so. The slices were draped over a hillock of crushed, waxy potatoes. A baby turnip – cute as a button – and some buerre noisette, a tidy plate of comfort.
And a golden little dome – a soufflé – threaded with Dungeness crab meat was amazing. Stupendous. Shockingly good, really, though more as an unapologetically unadulterated indulgence than a culinary epiphany.
The server sunk a spoonful of chive butter and a fat little sea urchin tongue into the molten center. For the size of this soufflé, there really should have been about four-times as much sea urchin for this dish to get promoted to the level of a true splurge. But one sea urchin tongue is better than none.
I tried to portion the sea urchin into multiple bites, but it felt miserly, misguided, wrong. So, I took one big bite with the entire sea urchin. That bite was phenomenal.
I was ill-prepared for how different, yet good “Seared Diver Scallop & Braised Veal Breast” would be. What you couldn’t tell from the menu is that this “surf ‘n turf” had a decidedly Asian coloring. I’m pretty certain that there was soy sauce in the veal jus. Together with the silky, wilted green garlic, the sauce vibrated with the excitement of a good Chinese stir-fry. The veal was tender, the scallop was delicious; it was a very good dish.
The desserts here were so-so, the weakest link.
The “Rose-Raspberry,” which was the dessert assigned to the Shellfish Tasting, had that infuriating creamy-icy (rose-scented pastry cream and lychee granita) thing going on that I dislike. Otherwise, it had a balanced flavor (not overly perfume-like), and it certainly was pretty, but there was nothing on the plate to write home about.
A moist, financier-like pistachio joconde painted shades of citrus, a gift from our server, was also much prettier than interesting (“Citrus and Pistachio“).
Aaron asked for the “Strawberry-Rhubarb Souffle” as a substitution. In my opinion, it was a smidge overcooked, the accompanying strawberry salad a smidge stingy. The strawberry soup that acted as a sauce was put to much better use in the pre-dessert, where it was paired with a tart little quenelle of yogurt sorbet. That was delicious.
Given our late start, further delayed by inattention, we were the last diners to leave the restaurant, a cavernous expanse that, by that late hour (so late, in fact, that they ran out of bread when I asked for more), looked and felt less like a commercial operation than when we first arrived. I was quite surprised by how large and impersonal the interior space was. At the height of service, it was downright bacchanal, with the bar five deep and waiting area brimming with delayed diners.
The food at Aqua wasn’t terribly sophisticated, or meritorious of the restaurant’s accolades. Two Michelin stars was an over-generous rating. Based on this one meal, I can see why both stars were stripped from Aqua shortly thereafter.
But the food was good, perhaps surprisingly so if even an ounce of the rumored turnover was true.
Without knowing the details of what exactly transpired in the months leading up to its closure, I can only speculate as to what was really going on behind the management’s doors. Judging by the night I was there, it didn’t seem like the restaurant was hurting for business (albeit, it was graduation weekend).
But, if what Manrique reported was true, the restaurant wasn’t financially sustainable. Either that, or the management was sorely mishandling the finances. How did the restaurant maintain a staff as long as it did? And why did the restaurant seem to charge full-speed toward what was surely a foreseeable demise, whilst investors peeled off, left and right?
I look forward to happier news from the now-fallow lot at 252 California Street. I hope Mr. Mina can restore some dignity to what is an amazing space in an amazing location with an amazing past.
To read about the other restaurants I visited on this trip to the San Francisco bay area, CLICK HERE.
252 California Street
San Francisco, California 94111
* Peter Armellino is currently executive chef and partner at Plumed Horse, a Michelin-starred restaurant in Saratoga, California