Just two months after I gave Aqua a thorough literary ass-kicking, it already deserves a second shot. Chef Duy Pham (late of Kyoto and, years back, Jay Chadron's other restaurant, Opal) recently signed on to take the reins at this eatery that, several revisions ago, was based on his concept of a simple, straightforward oyster bar and lounge specifically designed so that this odd, kitchenless space (Aqua has no hood system, and no real cooking is allowed) could service the night-time tastes of folks like...well, like Duy Pham, folks who think a half-dozen Wellfleet oysters and some raw tuna in ponzu is the ideal way to either start or end a night on the town.
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I'm one of those people, too. Which is why I was so excited when Aqua opened last year, and why I was so disappointed by the way things shook out. Long story short, Aqua was a disaster for more reasons than I have space to list. But now, with Pham in the kitchen and his staff of mercenaries working the bar and floor, I am happy to say that Aqua is already dramatically improved. When I showed up for dinner over the weekend, I found a new menu in place that's really an old menu — the one that Pham had in mind when he helped Chadrom with the initial Opal concept. It focuses heavily on the simple and un-fucked with: pounds of excellent shrimp dusted with Old Bay seasoning, pounds of crab legs, pounds of mussels and a half-dozed varieties of fresh oysters that are actually available — unlike at the Aqua of two months ago. There are baked oysters, a baked crab cake and a baked Chilean sea bass over new potatoes that, because of its delicate, oily flesh, takes quite well to being flashed inside an Easy-Bake Oven-like convection contraption — developing a caramelized crust in the process and sweetened by a hit of sticky, reduced soy. Pham's "new style" sashimi is innovation at its most stripped-down: three kinds of fish, done either sliced in the traditional sashimi mode and served with cilantro, a single slip of jalapeno chile, crisp shallots and a ponzu bath, or as a tartare.
Aqua is not yet a great restaurant and may never be one, but right now, at least it's an honest one. When I talked with Pham, he mentioned over and over again how this simple stuff — a piece of fish, a raw oyster, a twist of seaweed — is a complete denial of his personal style. By intent, this is a menu entirely lacking in personality, but it's also one of the only menus Pham's written where he likes to eat everything on it. It is a menu made for a situation, a space, a presumed customer base of like-minded piscopheliacs. And finally, it works. Aqua is back in the swim.