Sunday, November 23, 2008

Aqua 11/20/2008

252 California St
San Francisco, CA 94111
(415) 956-9662

The first stop on my 2-star food tour of San Francisco, I almost opted out of this dinner as eating alone is never fun. Aqua is located in the heart of the financial district, between all of the banks I was scheduled to visit the next day (ostensibly the "real" reason for the trip was recruiting).

When I arrived they were serving the mushroom menu which seems to be a holdover from Autumn. I figured the fact they extended the menu was a good sign the menu was pretty strong.

Pre-Amuse: Duck Prosciutto - Parmasean Geleé, Baby Arugula, Pickled Radish
The initial flavor is a burst of intense cheesiness that dissipates as the gelée melts on the tongue leaving the smoky richness of duck tempered by the nutty arugula.

Bread: Sourdough, Olive Sourdough, Multigrain - Cow's Milk Butter, Goat's Milk Butter with Sea Salt
The star here wasn't any of the breads but the goat's milk butter. The use of goat's milk imparted this faint whisper of goat cheese which complimented the smooth richness of the butter nicely.

Amuse: Hon-Shimeji - In Custard, Sea Urchin, Caviar
This was a very Japanese inspired dish. The custard is actually a chawanmushi and the whole dish came topped with dashi. The overall blend of flavor was wonderful, an earthy custard paired with savory broth heightened by briny caviar with the mellow sweetness of uni and most important of all the tart crunch of the mushroom. The best dish of the night.

01: Oyster - Warm Kumamoto Oyster, Celery Agnolotti, Pomegranate
The dish was drizzled with a warm brown butter sauce with pomegranate. The sauce was a bit too intense with a strong toffee-like character. Warming seemed to take some of the sharp brine off the oyster leaving only the sweetness which complemented the mushroom and the sweet celery agnolotti nicely. The pomegranates were cooked as well diluting their flavor and giving them a crunch almost like that of pine nuts.

02: Matsutake - Langoustine, Nori, Apple, Pine Oil
I was looking forward to this dish very much sadly it came out a bit unbalanced. The tempura half of the dish tasted far too strongly of tempura batter drowning out the delicate flavor of the langoustine and the woody mushrooms. I think the soup was much better maintaining the characteristic flavor of matsutake while adding some interesting elements, still overall with matsutake, less is more just let the flavor of the mushroom dominate.

03: Black Trumpet - Maine Diver Scallop, Ginger & Lime Emulsion
This is my first experience with black trumpet mushrooms, they had this rich lingering woodiness that I haven't tasted before. The scallop was very nearly raw with a thick tender texture marred by the presence of sand. The ginger and lime was a bit overpowering at times but still gave the scallops a nice flavor. The dish also came with truffle puree which I consider cheating given that this dish was supposed to be about black trumpet mushrooms.

04: Cauliflower - Vadouvan Cream
Cauliflower mushrooms are what Chinese people call White Wood Ear Mushrooms. I have eaten this with a warm sweet soup at home on many occasions, ostensibly for health reasons. The mushroom itself is very light with its main distinguishing characteristic the crunchy texture. I didn't care for the vadouvan cream, it had some hint of spice but I mostly got this bitter herbal taste that reminded me of Chinese medicine.

05: Morel - In Soufflé, Smoked Shallot, Foie Gras
I was looking forward to this dish as I love the richness of morels. Preparing a soufflé using morels is certainly a novel preparation but stripped much of the natural flavor of the mushroom out of the dish. Topping that was a foie gras beurre blanc which masked the mushroom in a fatty buttery mass. On the side was a lovely salad with foie gras au torchon. I must say the foie was lovely cold and smooth with just the right amount of mouth-coating fattiness.

06: Chanterelle & Yellow Foot - Alantic Cod, Fennel, Sunchoke, Slow Egg Yolk, Majoram
Taken by itself the fish is quite nice, flaky but moist and very light in flavor. Much of the flavor of this course came from the fennel and again the mushrooms are largely lost. I did enjoy the slow cooked egg yolk which I found to be a nice base for the mushrooms when eaten without the fish.

07: Porcini - Maine Lobster, House Cured Bacon, Truffle
Lobster, truffle, and bacon what is not to like, too bad the focal ingredient was the porcini. The luxurious pairing of truffle and lobster is enlivened nicely by the addition of bacon which gave a nice saltiness to the dish. The porcini came thinly sliced and reseted gently atop the lobster, they added some textural contrast but very little flavor. The one thing that marred this dish was the gross overcooking of the lobster.

Intermezzo: Brown Butter Ice Cream - Huckleberry Reduction
Again the use of powerful brown butter, this time the bittersweet flavors were deftly contrasted by a tangy syrup of huckleberry. The berries themselves had a texture as if they had been dried or frozen with all of the water wrung out leaving an intense fruity pop.

08: Truffle - Duet of Tapioca Pearl & Pomegranate, Guanaja Chocolate Truffle Crémeux
Another contender for dish of the night was the dessert. The ethereal parfait had the faintest taste of truffle and went nicely with the sugar tuille as well as the piquant pomegranate. On the other side we have a dark chocolate cream, thick and rich with a complex blend of aromas and flavors, almost like a fine wine. Texturally this contrasted nicely with a layer of crunchy cocco nibs and a dense flourless chocolate base. The kicker that truly elevated this dish was the slice of truffle on top. Initially dominated by the chocolate, the truffle really comes to the fore at the end with a taste that lingered on the palate.

Mignardises - Dark Chocolate, Passionfruit Marshmallow, Coconut Gelée, Fig Almond Cookie
The mignardises were quite nice especially the lively marshmallow and the tropical coconut gelée a very tasty way to close out the night.

For something labeled as a Tasting of Autumn Mushrooms, the impact of the mushrooms sure fell off in the later courses. Part of this is probably due to the use of stronger flavors especially in the latter half of the menu but a chef of Manrique's caliber should have come up with more appropriate pairings that let the mushrooms take center stage.

For the most part, I enjoyed the meal for, but there were some basic basic mistakes like the overcooked lobster that I might forgive at a lesser restaurant but not a Michelin 2 star.


Food, she thought. said...

What do you guys do during the day to stay fit? Daily boot camp? Ride bikes to work? Personal trainers on staff?

Tangbro1 said...

We are engineers, fitness isn't part of the plan. Honestly, I tried to go to the gym daily, but I haven't had time in the last 3 months

Aaron said...

You went to Aqua by yourself? I've heard that it is overrated. I'm a mushroom fan, but the dishes didn't look too appetizing. Your descriptions also seemed lackluster, not a good sign for one of the highest rated restaurants in SF. Also, what's a pre-amuse? Isn't it just another amuse?

Tangbro1 said...

It is overrated, that's what Kevin felt as well although one of my other friends recommended it so I thought I'd try it. I had to choose between Aqua and Mina and Aqua was closer.

The custard was excellent as was the dessert but there was something off on the execution of some of the later savory courses.

In essence it is just another amuse, the restaurant called it a gift from the chef so I wanted to distinguish it from the rest of the menu. In my Manresa review I have multiple amuses and just identify them by number like I would normal courses.