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.