International waters

AquaKnox successfully cross-dresses fish in Dallas

Like the emissions-obsessed alarmists who just departed Kyoto in limousines and huge jet aircraft designed to carry a dozen people and a cocktail lounge, I'm concerned about an impending global crisis. Not the Al Gore kind of crisis where the planet warms and sea levels rise so that snorkeling skills become critical in Lubbock--I'm talking about a crisis in global cuisine.

In another decade, maybe less if we don't do something fast, I believe earth will simply run out of cuisines to fuse with one another. So many chefs are traversing the globe looking for things to cross-dress with daikon radishes and plantains that it won't be long before we exhaust the supply of new substances to encrust, dust, dress, poach, marinade, braise, infuse, saute, and pan-sear. Think of the hordes of chefs who will be forced to again use kiwi fruit. Think of the fatal blow to the all-important PBS cooking-show industry.

You could argue that this bit of hyperbole underestimates the boundless creativity and resourcefulness of the human mind. For it was just after WWII that scientists were telling us the world's then-known oil reserves would be exhausted in 25 years. This aptly illustrates how inaccurate global-crisis prognostication is, especially when it's done by those with too much time and government funding on their hands. While it may seem that little uncharted territory remains on the frontiers of global grub, we must remember that no chef has yet constructed a menu based solely on insects, of which there are some 3 million species. That's 3 million new ways to encrust, dust, dress, poach, marinade, braise, infuse, saute, and pan-sear. So my global culinary worries are actually just more daffy doomsday-scenario-mongering that not only fail to take into account the untapped resource of entomological edibles, they completely ignore the vitality of Stephan Pyles' brain.

Fortunately, Pyles is far from having to resort to plates of mesclun with grasshoppers stir-fried in squished caterpillar-infused sesame oil to prove his genius, although such ecosystem cuisine would probably warm the hearts of many with its potent symbolism. Instead, he and partner Michael Cox bring us AquaKnox, a new restaurant serving "global water cuisine." This may sound like little more than boiled food assembled from an international grocer, but it's actually a fresh interpretation of seafood incorporating brush strokes from Asia and Central and South America.

"It's certainly global in feel," says Pyles. "But also it's creating a cuisine that didn't exist. These aren't dishes that I've just pulled from Peru or Ecuador or Asia. They are really new dishes that are inspired by certain cuisines around the world."

The way to approach AquaKnox is to purge your mind of the hype and celebrity associated with Stephan Pyles. Forget all of the glitz and kitsch and snootiness of Star Canyon. Simply look at the plates of food Pyles and Executive Chef Lisa Balliet (formerly of Cafe Pacific and Masa in San Francisco) place on the AquaKnox table. It's easy to do, because the decor is so clean, open, and imaginatively lit, it's like another flavor layer. The glassed-in entrance corridor holds a 12-foot, black granite waterwall and a 400-gallon saltwater tank washed in deep blue light behind the hostess stand. The front of the restaurant is an open kitchen with woks, a rotisserie, a wood-burning oven, and a display case with a red snapper, a salmon, and assorted shell fish on ice serving as mortified global water decor. To the right is the lounge area with black marble tables and an adjoining patio area. The ceiling is a sculpture with huge, flat, wooden fish circling a pole with black metal appendages emanating outward that look to be some form of seaweed. The blue terrazzo floor and cobalt blue lighting fixtures hang over the bar, creating a crisp marine theme for lounge amphibians.

A waterwall coupled with glass work separates the lounge/open kitchen business from the dining room, which is elegant and understated. The floor, covered in rich blue carpeting, holds wrap-around booths finished in navy leather and deep blue fabric. Tables are topped with cobalt blue glass bowls of bright lemons, and the room is simply accessorized with small glass panel etchings of aquatic life arranged low along the walls. A large, 5,000-pound alabaster disk chandelier, held in the ceiling with an iron grid, soaks the room in a subtle glow; plush curtains at the far end cordon the restrooms. The whole assembly is strikingly unassuming, especially when compared with the cartoonish Star Canyon.

"The success of Star Canyon is based on a theatrical approach to dining," admits Pyles. "You come in; you feel the energy. It's about the environment, the look, the synergy that is there with the food. But it's not completely about the food. In the beginning, I hated to admit that."

Yet the food at AquaKnox, denuded of gaudy ambiance, proves Pyles is a true creative force with durability and depth--not just a flash of potent imagination rendered flabby by celebrity. Many successful chefs hit upon a dazzling formula, collect acclaim, and then spend a good part of their professional lives endlessly duplicating it. But Pyles and his staff take bold risks with this menu. While a few dishes don't quite hit the mark, those that do force you to lose yourself over your plate or bowl.

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