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Finding Nemo

I'm in way over my head at the Aquarium.

The bar, the gift shop, the restaurant -- everywhere you can get to while waiting in increasing fury for that little buzzer thing to go off -- is done up in a continuous coral-reef theme: the ocean floor as envisioned by a crazed hippie marine biologist. Day-Glo anemone wiggle from every nook, neon shells and fans are stuck in every cranny and mobiles of brightly colored fish depend from wires hanging from the vaulted ceiling. The centerpiece of it all -- the only thing that elevates the decor above the set of a third-grade production of Finding Nemo -- is the 200,000-gallon fish tank that now squats horribly where the Ocean Journey otter habitat once sat. The tank is filled with fish endlessly swimming back and forth, gawping at their piscine brethren being devoured on the other side of the glass, all to the screeching delight of squirming fat children with shrimp in their fists and cocktail sauce in their hair.

There are sharks -- little black-tips (very good eating) and bigger, dead-eyed sand sharks -- because sharks are the only things people really want to see in an aquarium. Unless, of course, they're coming to see Santa in a mask and scuba tank swimming around with said sharks, which apparently had happened just that morning during the seasonal "Breakfast With Santa" -- because nothing says Christmas in the Rockies like a fat guy in a fake beard and rebreather dumped into a tropical fish tank. I wondered if staffers had taken bets on how long it would be before one of those sand sharks bit Santa's leg off. Hours later, I could swear the place still stank of wet beard and despair.

After waiting an hour, I counted 45 people still ahead of us and realized that this represented my purgatory, the lobby of lost souls in which I could linger for an eternity if I so chose. Instead, I returned my pager, bought myself a great white shark mask and a box of sea monkeys in the gift shop, and we left.

Tanks for the memories: The Aquarium takes diners 
to the culinary depths.
Mark Manger
Tanks for the memories: The Aquarium takes diners to the culinary depths.

Location Info

Map

Aquarium Restaurant

700 Water St.
Denver, CO 80211

Category: Restaurant > Seafood

Region: Northwest Denver

Details

700 Water Street, 303-561-4450. Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday

Parking: $6
“Shiver Me Timbers” cocktail: $8
Draft Fat Tire: $5.25
Shrimp-and-crab dip: $9.99
Lettuce wraps: $12.99
Sea bass: $20.99
Captain’s Platter: $23.99
Mixed grill: $26.99
Grilled chicken pasta: $15.99

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But we were back the next afternoon, hoping to beat the worst of the crowds that would descend après-Broncos. We strolled arm in arm past the bar, past the freaky faux reefs, through the gift shop and up to the hostess stand, where we requested a table right up against the tank. Which we got, along with a server who gave us his blank-eyed spiel about the fish, the sharks, the swimming Santa, and how, if we had any questions about the sea life either in the tank or on our plates, we could just ask.

And we did, pestering him about sharks and clownfish and poison dart frogs even though every page of the thick menu included detailed information about sharks and clownfish and poison dart frogs. It was a test, and he passed it with a vacant smile stapled up around his earlobes, suggesting all the while that we try the "house special" shrimp-and-crab dip that was a "nationwide bestseller" and save room for dessert because the Aquarium had "one of the finest pastry staffs in the city."

Let me repeat that: The Aquarium had one of the finest pastry staffs in the city. If that was actually the case, I vowed to kill myself on the spot.

The shrimp-and-crab dip was essentially the same stuff my mom used to throw together to impress the ladies in her mothers' group back when I was still sweating my way through Sunday school -- a mix of frozen shrimp, canned crab, some cheese and a lot of mayonnaise, baked and served with "toast points" (bias-sliced stale baguette in this case, with the acidic, sour flavor of mass production and stabilizing agents). We'd also ordered the lettuce-wrap appetizer platter, which was the largest portion of anything I've ever seen served at any restaurant anywhere. Calling it a "platter" doesn't do it justice; the salver it came on was the size of a decent side table and held an entire cored head of lettuce, pounds of cubed, grilled chicken, flat noodles in sesame oil, red cabbage, peanuts and sliced, marinated cucumber.

Landry's is the land of big portions and big appetites. Big groups of people come here looking for big plates, and the kitchen delivers on the promise of food served by the yard and by the pound. Combo plates on this menu could feed a family of four -- a Captain's Platter of broiled catfish, stuffed shrimp, stuffed crab, jumbo shrimp, scallops, oysters Rockefeller, rice and veg all together on the same plate, a mixed grill of smoked salmon, filet mignon, more big shrimp and au gratin potatoes -- and the appetizers could satiate a whole table and still send folks home with leftovers. Laura had a bowl of chicken alfredo pasta, dressed in a pasty parmesan-cheese sauce and leaning toward carbonara with its bacon and spinach and mushrooms and pointless bits of tomato confetti. I had an Asian preparation of sea bass speckled with black and white sesame seeds, because it seemed like the most complicated, labor-intensive dish on the menu (and therefore the one least likely to be ordered by my fellow diners, who seemed to be into fried anything in a big way). The menu described it as sake-glazed and served in a shiso broth with Asian vegetables and shrimp dumplings. What I got was a huge, decent piece of fish, burned on the bottom from having been finished on the flat-grill, appropriately dotted with sesame, swimming in what tasted like beef ramen choked with carrot sticks, napa cabbage and dumplings filled with wads of shrimp paste that was like jellied fish food wrapped in pastry dough and deep-fried.

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