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When Aqua opened its doors 10 years ago, it was the only place in town where one could enjoy the city's esteemed seafood in a sophisticated setting. Before Aqua, the best places in the city to sample petrale, sand dabs, Dungeness crab, and other regional treasures were low-key. The century-old fish houses had charcoal grills and no-nonsense preparations; Chinatown venues offered fresh flatfish served whole and crispy with a garlicky black bean sauce; and the Swan Oyster Depot was rambunctious and dependable, if not fancy. Aqua's elegant, intricate, creative preparations of both local seafood and rarely encountered delicacies from far away provided the city with its only upscale seafood restaurant, a species common to the Atlantic seaboard but in short supply here. In its first decade of operation, Aqua has dazzled its patrons with an evolving menu of singular flavors and textures served up in lush surroundings. Its accomplishments have earned it a place on the short-list of requisite San Francisco restaurants, alongside La Folie, the Slanted Door, Ton Kiang, Swan, Tadich Grill, and Sam's.
It's the ideal place, in other words, to take an important visitor from out of town. Suzy was arriving from Chicago for a friend's wedding, and since the nuptials would take place during the month of my birthday (the older I get, the longer I prolong the self-congratulation), I wanted to celebrate both her visit and my natal day at a suitably festive, urbane establishment. Aqua was the immediate and irresistible choice. During the course of Suzy's stay, we visited and enjoyed many other top-shelf venues -- Absinthe, Hawthorne Lane, Zuni, Forbes Island, Luna Park, the House, Jardinière, Yank Sing, Mario's, Rose Pistola, and the sausage stand in front of the Hyatt Union Square -- but Aqua was always the celebratory fulcrum. This isn't to say that in every instance Aqua served better food than the other restaurants: Hawthorne Lane's foie gras is among the best on the planet, and Luna Park's hillock of glistening, raw ahi is as delicious as it is unattractive. But Aqua's combination of aesthetic presentations, imaginative flavors, and insightful, personalized service is the stuff of memorable evenings.
The restaurant is located in the Financial District along the California Street cable car tracks, right next to its culinary forebear, the Tadich Grill. Big plate-glass windows offer glimpses of the grand interior from the sidewalk: towering ceilings, burnt-orange walls, recessed, dappled lighting, and wave-patterned carpeting. Thickly upholstered armchairs, glittering crystal, and bountiful flower arrangements add to an ambience that would be perfectly suave if it weren't for the high decibel count of its capacity crowds. The staff is welcoming, attentive, and short on hauteur, creating a comfortable atmosphere ideal for long, luxurious, multicourse meals. In this setting, chef Michael Mina's richly conceived dishes of lobster, mussels, caviar, and other briny pleasures are absolutely appropriate.
San Francisco, CA 94111
Open for lunch Monday through Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 2:15 p.m.,
For dinner Monday through Thursday from 5:30 to 10:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday until 11 p.m.
Parking: possible; valet available after 6 p.m.
Muni: California Street cable car
Noise level: pronounced
Chanterelle bisque -- $16
Scallops and foie gras -- $21
Medallions of ahi -- $36
Steamed rouget -- $33
Peach en croûte -- $10
Ice cream cones -- $10
Morgan chardonnay -- $14.50/glass
We studied the menu between sips of a nicely spiky margarita and a cool, sweet Lemon Drop from the full bar. The list offers an ocean of protein in several tempting forms: terrine of white anchovies, tartare of ahi, parfait of caviar, a lobster pot pie, seared bass with artichokes, a whole roasted turbot for two with corn pudding and truffle emulsion, and the venue's most famous dish, a soufflé of black mussels, chardonnay, and saffron cream. (If you can't make up your mind, there's a six-course tasting menu for $125 as well as a five-course vegetarian option for a mere $55.) The simple lead-in to these culinary fireworks was an amuse-bouche (a freebie) that arrived with the sourdough rolls -- a demitasse of sweet-corn soup, silky and fresh with earthy undertones. To follow it up, we decided on a second soup, a warm, velvety bisque of chanterelles that, like the demitasse, highlighted the wildness of the mushroom. Floating atop were two flaky turnovers stuffed with Maine lobster -- an inspired touch. Our second appetizer was a stunner: seared sea scallops crowned with a delicate fillet of foie gras, accompanied by caramelized Black Mission figs, bittersweet Belgian endive, and a dollop of 100-year-old balsamic vinegar.
Our foie gras appetite barely slaked, we opted for the ahi with foie gras as our first entree. Here the rare tuna medallions were as creamy and tender as a good porterhouse, and the seared goose liver that came with them made for a decadent accent. The dish came dressed with a pinot noir sauce that brought out the tuna's robust flavor without overwhelming the foie gras. Our second entree was rouget, the red mullet prized around the Mediterranean but rarely seen in these parts. Its flavor was surprising for a fish: Firm and flaky, it tasted more like a rich cut of meat than a denizen of the sea. Aqua steams it with citrus and serves it with a lemony brown butter, al dente Romano long beans, and a creamy purée of salt cod -- that last a bracing addition.
Pastry chef Jason Gingold's dessert menu is so full of attractive options that it's difficult to narrow things down. But after considering the fig-raspberry fritters, the Scharffen Berger chocolate pudding cake with wild blackberry shake, and the root beer float with warm chocolate chip cookies, we settled on the peach en croûte and Aqua's famous ice cream cones. In the former, a pretty good fried crust came wrapped around a disappointingly bland summer peach; fortunately, it was served with tasty lemon verbena ice cream. In the latter, three richly flavored ice creams (chocolate, vanilla, and blackberry) arrived in tiny house-made waffle cones resting in individual metal holders -- a charming, cheerful presentation.
Aqua's wine list is immense: There are nine pages of pinot noirs alone, with many hard-to-find treasures scattered throughout. At our waiter's suggestion we enjoyed a glass of buttery Morgan chardonnay with the scallops and violet La Bete pinot with the tuna. Both were delicious, but whether they were worth the high price -- $14.50 and $13, respectively -- is between you and your pocketbook. Tea at Aqua makes a good dessert-time option, served as it is in the leaf with ceremony and all the proper accouterments. Not unlike Aqua itself, the service is a modern classic in a town famous for its myriad culinary options.