Observations on Food in the Bay Area
website - At California and Battery in SF. For my birthday my girlfriend decided that she would treat me to a dinner at Aqua, frequently declared to be one of SF's top 5 restaurants, and often rated as one of the more expensive ones. Well, cheap it ain't, but damn good it certainly is. We elected to go with the seasonal tasting menu, which is $85/person for 6 courses. They have a truly extensive wine list which (unsuprisingly) focuses on Pinot Noir. In fact, there were 2 pages of US pinot. This is nice, because pinot is usually restrained enough to go with their largely seafood focused menu. We elected to start with a half bottle of Robert Sinskey Pinot Blanc, which was nicely fruity and almost sweet, while maintaining a dry finish. (This was a 100% markup on winery prices. There's also a $25 corkage fee. hmph. Though for a place that's this pricey, I suppose you have to expect that.) It went very well with our first 2 courses, but couldn't quite stand up to the #3 - the foie gras, which is why we followed it with a 1999 J Pinot Noir, a wonderfully fruity, medium-light bodied incredibly smooth wine which was truly almost sweet in character, but with sufficient complexity to enhance even the astoundingly complicated salmon and morel combination. It was something more than a 100% markup.
Enough of prices and monies and suchlike... onto the delicacies!
Lobster bisque and tuna crouton - really good! The bisque concentrated the lobster flavor in a way I've never really experienced before, taking something that to me is usually rather bland and making it instead impressively flavorful and rich. Quite nice. The crouton was an interesting bready creation that I also found to be quite tasty.
1st course: we managed to convince them to give us 2 different appetizers. woo hoo!
Hamachi (with avocado, pine nuts, ruby red grapefruit vinaigrette) - light, amazingly simple, yet a wonderfully suprising pairing. Everything worked perfectly together, and no flavor overpowered another. Also, the texture differences between the juicy grapefruit chunks and the seared slices of halibut were fantastic.
Tartare of Ahi Tuna (with Moroccan spices, lemon confit, fresh herbs, quail egg yolk, served with crisped bread slices) - astounding. There's no other word for it. A far more complex and richer dish than the hamachi, this wonder is mixed at the table in front of you. All of the flavors come through in a spectacular combination. The light spices really enhance the flavor of the uber-fresh tuna, and the very flavorful bread (I've forgotten exactly what spiced butter they'd used on it prior to toasting) made a fantastic serving platform. I will get this every single time I return, assuming that I do. Just fantastic.
"Moules Frites" (mussel souffle with curry cream, and a red pepper and mussel salad) - the souffle was fantastic. Wonderful rich mussel flavor, completely enhanced by the light cream (added to taste). Melted in your mouth. The salad left something to be desired - the single mussel on top was entirely overwhelmed by the strength of flavor of the (pickled?) red pepper chunks. It was reasonably tasty, but nothing on the souffle.
Sauteed Artisan Foie Gras & Maine Scallop (with marinated mushroom salad and crispy fried garlic) - wonderful. The foie gras, scallop, and underlying bed of mushrooms were all of a reasonably similar soft, melty textural quality, yet all of equally different and interesting flavors that made for a wonderful, very rich combination when all eaten together.
Maine Skate Wing (lightly breaded, with warm butter lettuce, pancetta, herb vinaigrette) - the skate was fantastically flaky, moist, melt-in-your-mouth tasty. It bore more than a passing resemblance to the skate served by Paul K, another favorite SF restaurant of mine, but the Paul K version I now realize to be a bit overcooked perhaps. They all seem to be lightly breaded and fried, though. Perhaps that's how skate is simply meant to be served. The lettuce I have some issue with, as I was of the opinion that the vinaigrette was a bit overpowering, and there certainly could have been more pancetta. I'd be suprised if the combined weight of all the miniscule chunks in the lettuce came to more than 2 grams.
Wild King Salmon (with morel mushrooms, green garlic, potato gnocchi, chive cream) - possibly the best dish of the night, certainly a rival to the Astounding Ahi. The salmon was cooked to absolute beyond-flaky melt-in-your-mouth perfection, with just the hint of a drizzle of cream on top. The morels, which I'd been looking forward to tasting for at least a year after reading Neil Gaiman rave about them on his blog, were rich and earthy in all the wonderfully good ways that fancy mushrooms are. I understand the raving completely. Everything combined into a fantastic flavor experience that was nothing short of miraculous; no one overpowered any other - they simply added on to each other in an increasingly wonderful experience. This dish also really brought out the flavor of the wine as well, reducing the sweet fruit, and enhancing the earthy complexities underneath. Wow. Truly great.
Warm chocolate cake (with chocolate sugar crisp and some kind of ice cream I forgot) - sigh. I begin to wonder if ever again I shall experience the perfection that was the Wild Hare warm chocolate cake. But this was, at least, quite good. Though I wasn't a big fan of the carmelized chocolate sugar cookie, but the ice cream was sufficiently light enough to counter the warmth and richness of the cake well.
There were also a few select candies as an additional post-dessert freebie, which were quite tasty.
All in all, it was a wonderful night of extravagant eating, and one which I would repeat at the drop of a hat, were I a rich man. Unfortunately, I'm not, so I guess a repeat performance will have to wait, but I'd certainly recommend it to anyone looking for a DAMN good dinner at a less-than-Masa's price. Compared to Masa? Well, that's tough. Masa might just have Aqua beat, but only by a small margin. Masa mostly wins out in the unbelievably good, culinary orgazm level sauces which were wild and amazing mixtures of things you'd never have contemplated mixing. But without those sauces, it'd be too close to call.