By Jamie Swinnerton
By Mark Antonation
By Lori Midson
By Jonathan Shikes
By Amber Taufen
By Cafe Society
By Juliet Wittman
By Jonathan Shikes
Stutter-stepping into the room, every food-service reflex I possess told me to flee. I have a deep-seated and nearly phobic fear of empty restaurants, knowing full well that there is always a reason for it. And the only reason I didn't run this night was because sometimes my curiosity is stronger than my fear. Also, I was meeting people for dinner.
At the hostess stand, a waitress full of friendly smiles and a lost-outpost eagerness didn't bother asking if I had reservations, just told me to sit wherever I liked. In my head, the snappy comeback: at a nice, warm bar somewhere with a cold pint and a big crowd.
Instead, I took a seat near the back, made note of the empty and unplugged cold case where the night's fresh shellfish had once been displayed, then scanned the menu for those dishes I thought least likely to have gone bad while waiting for someone, anyone to stumble in and order them.
925 Lincoln St.
Denver, CO 80203-2766
Category: Bars and Clubs
Region: Central Denver
Oysters: $2 apiece
New-style sashimi: $9
Sea bass: $18
Salmon puff pastry: $14
Short ribs: $19
Chef's Muse: $75
My friends arrived, looking as worried as I was. When the waitress told us there was no ceviche, only two Malpeque oysters and a handful of Wellfleets left, we wondered only how long they must've been sitting around for the stock to run so low — and decided to skip the shellfish entirely. Instead, we decided on the house sampler of "new style" sashimi and some crabcakes to start.
The sashimi was surprisingly good — fresh, prepared artfully and with an admirable simplicity: slabs of tuna speckled with cracked black pepper, salmon flashed under a broiler and brushed with soy, yellowtail in a citric oil, punctuated by tiny slivers of serrano chile. The crabcakes were excellent, too, just a wad of hip and backfin meat, slightly browned, served with a side of clarified butter for dipping. Suddenly, we were infused with confidence. Maybe this was just some kind of special no-fish holiday that none of us knew about.
But then, looking around the room, I finally noticed what was missing from Aqua — other than customers, vitality, signs of life. There were no hood vents, no ventilation ductwork, no service stations but those at the bar. There were no stoves, no burners, no ovens. There was no kitchen. And I suddenly remembered Chadrom once telling me how he'd done this deliberately, designing Aqua like a kind of bizarre Survivor-style cooking reality show where the staff was forced to make do and serve a nightly menu using only rack steamers and toaster ovens. Like at some terrible banquet facility, all of this food — virtually everything on the menu that wasn't served raw or steamed — was being cooked off-site, transported over (walked across the street from Opal, actually, an act I witnessed during a stakeout the next day), and stashed in coolers, on racks, sealed up in plastic wrap. All prep and plating is done behind the bar, just below the sight-line of those seated at the tables — and I say "prep and plating" because, without a stovetop, without ovens, without pans and elements and all the various fire-breathing machinery of a kitchen, there is no real cooking. And without cooking, there are no cooks.
What Aqua's white-jackets were doing was essentially reheating, not cooking — the same thing that any of us might do with last night's leftovers, tossing them in the microwave or into the toaster oven, putting a little brown on them before sitting down and eating in front of the TV. And while I'd overlooked this at my first meal because the "Chef's Muse" played to the strength of the quote/unquote kitchen by offering a lot of raw dishes, a lot of simple presentations, now I was unable to do so.
After the appetizers, everything tasted like last call at a cheap uncle's country-club wedding buffet, like the leftovers of a dinner that hadn't been very good the first time around. The baked Chilean sea bass was flaccid and wet and flavorless. The fried potato cake it was mounted over was too tough to chew; the puddle of lobster beurre blanc it sat in was cold. One of my friends had ordered the braised short ribs. The meat tasted like cheap stew beef and was pointlessly set over sawn rib bones as a garnish; the whipped potatoes it came with were gummy, gray and so salty they could've been used as a salt lick to tempt wild animals into the dining room. And the salmon in puff pastry infuriated me, because it was nothing more than a cheap knockoff of a classically French dish in which you wrap a delicate filet of salmon in layers of unrisen pastry dough with slivers of truffle, then bake it until the whole thing swells, turns golden. When it is cut at table, the scent of truffles fills the room. What Aqua served was like a ninety-nine cent salmon Hot Pocket warmed in a microwave until gooey, waterlogged and horrid.
Without cooks, you can't really call a place a restaurant. But without customers, it won't stay a bar or nightclub for long, either.