Cold Kumomoto oysters from the bays of British Columbia, Malpeques from Prince Edward Island, gulf prawns from Mexico and littleneck clams from wherever littleneck clams call home. Negi-tuna sashimi, octopus and red-snapper ceviche, P.E.I. mussels by the pound juiced with ponzu and aioli. Whole king crabs, lobster tails, shrimp cocktails. Chilean sea bass (and damn the environmental consequences) baked and served with asparagus in a tarn of lobster beurre blanc, salmon in puff pastry, crabcakes swimming in butter, tuna tataki, yellowtail tuna sashimi with serrano chiles, seared tuna with asparagus risotto topped with a balsamic-vinegar-and-honey reduction.
From the start, the menu at Aqua has been gastro-porn of the highest order, high-gloss fantasy for fish fetishists, intellectual hardcore for oyster junkies and piscophiliacs. From the most straightforward presentations of cold clam-on-clam action (littlenecks and cherrystones) to the more esoteric and abstruse kicks of the serious connoisseur — the flights of shooters with chilled stock and pepper-vodka infusions; plates spattered with beurre blanc, miso and saffron broth; the epic luxe sampler platter where the only limit is how much you're willing to pay — Aqua claimed to have it all. Owner Jay Chadrom (who also owns Opal, across the street) was incredibly proud of the board he had on offer — of the variety, the possibility, the freedom his cooks had to create dishes and cater to every whim and fancy. It had taken him a long time to get Aqua open, and while he was working on the place (battling over lease arrangements, over how large an aquarium he could create as the centerpiece of his unusual dining-room-in-the-round), he was making promises. Aqua was going to be a restaurant and bar. It was going to be a nightclub. It was going to be a restaurant, bar and nightclub, inspired by the restaurant, bar and nightclub of the same name in Las Vegas, bringing the glitz and glamour of Sin City to Denver and featuring piscine marvels the likes of which this landlocked steak-and-potatoes city had never seen.
And for more than a year — from mid-July 2005 up until August of last year — every time I talked to Chadrom on the phone, he would get me excited about this place that resolutely refused to open. A club guy who fell into the restaurant game with the opening of Opal four years ago, Chadrom is a helluva promoter, with an infectious, inflected enthusiasm and a busker's talent for igniting interest in the unlikeliest of ventures. I was swayed by images of towering plateaus de fruits de mer crowned with pink shrimp, fresh oysters over glittering cracked ice, whole lobster tails split and brushed down with clarified butter. And so every time Aqua missed another opening date, breezed past another promised weekend launch, I would call Chad-rom and ask when, dear God, was he finally going to unlock the fucking doors?
He finally did, late in the summer of 2006. I was there about two weeks later — the earliest dinner I'd been able to schedule. Not wanting to waste another moment, I went straight for the "Chef's Muse" — a tasting menu of plate after plate after plate of simply prepped and presented sea creatures, all cracked, shucked, boiled, steamed and slaughtered for my gluttonous pleasure. At seventy-five bucks a pop, it was expensive but seemed worth it. Crabcakes and crab legs and sashimi and oysters, shrimp dressed in lemon juice, ceviches with oddly Italian/Southwestern, almost Spanish accents. It was a world tour, a staggering, haywire journey that bounced from the Pacific Northwest to the Caribbean to Japan and South America and the Mediterranean, and it didn't end until I'd eaten the entire cast of Finding Nemo and was ready to pass out from exhaustion.
There was a crowd at Aqua that night as I ate my weight in crustaceans — not a full house, but a respectable mob lounging around the squishy, high-backed booths and massing at the bar. And in the corner was me: bobbing up from my seat, always on the lookout for the next course, the next plate headed in my direction, with such a blind hunger for sea critters that I wonder if I ever really saw the place at all.
Eight months later, when I returned to Aqua, it was a very different restaurant. I had reservations for prime time on a Thursday night — at an hour when any self-respecting restaurant, bar or nightclub ought to be jammed to the rafters. But when I arrived, the valets were standing around doing nothing. There was a busboy with his nose pressed up against the sliding glass doors, scanning the street for trade.
I stopped short just inside the door, eyes darting over the unoccupied booths and couches, at the guys behind the bar listlessly poking at the equipment or dabbing at things with side towels, listening to the sepulchral echo of some trance-y club remix bouncing around the room. One of the cooks had kicked back in a far booth, asleep or close to it. The big, square central bar with the fish tank in the middle was deserted. The space — all dark and soft-edged urban-minimalist — actually seemed smaller empty than it had full, certainly looked sadder, and smelled of icy, refrigerated air and crushing boredom.
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.
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 showwhere 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.
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