International waters

AquaKnox successfully cross-dresses fish in Dallas

Lobster corn chowder is one of the selections that kicks in this disorientation. It's a clean, light, and tangy bisque with an infusion of tomato, cubes of potato, and a lobster claw garnish. South American touches--roasted corn and pieces of lobster tail coated in an ancho orange glaze--are subtle, appropriate, and very tasty.

One of AquaKnox's more seductive visual constructions, the vodka-cured salmon gravlox, comes assembled on a large plate with folds of salmon flesh topped with ossetra caviar arranged on a small, griddled corn cake in the plate's center. The space between the center and the rim of the plate is sprinkled with crumbles of surprisingly savory quail egg with parsley, and peeled segments of lime are arranged around the rim like the points of a star. The silken salmon was tender with round, refined flavors that were focused and intensified by the caviar. The only drawback to this orchestration was the cold, pasty corn cake that seemed to deaden the vitality of the sea elements. Perhaps a slightly steamed cake would have been a more effective girding.

Another eye-entrancing creation was the assorted sushi and sashimi platter that was assembled on a long, narrow plate with a celery stalk cut into a cactus-like sculpture and piles of delicately shredded carrot and daikon radish. Fish included tuna and slices of fatty salmon. The flavor highlight was the California roll, which, substituting asparagus for cucumber and scallop and real crab for that imitation crustacean flesh most commonly used in these rice logs, was the liveliest rendition of this culinary organism I've ever tasted.

The entrees were equally compelling, though not always as successful. The potato-crusted sea bass was a sight to behold--shimmering and thick, like an enormously rich cheesecake. Settled on slices of olive-oil-poached tomato, the fish was topped with slices of potato with shrimp mousilline and clarified butter and bits of artichoke bottom and kalamata olives. The meat was moist, firm, and tender, but somehow this melange of elements remained segregated, never fully harmonizing their flavors.

Slipping even further from successful orchestration, the brown-butter skate on crab plantain hash seemed an exercise in forced fusion. The cleanly pleated sheet of skate was slightly sweet and buttery-rich, with a lacy texture. But the hash was too much: a mix of coarsely cubed plantain, sweet potato, and crab with fried capers was texturally distracting and a bit too sweet. Perhaps a more restrained hash presentation (diced ingredients) and a sharper focus on framing the delicate skate flavors would have been more successful.

No such challenges afflicted the lemongrass prawns with purple sticky-rice tamale and coconut-curry sauce. The name reads like a self-conscious attempt at trendy global confluence. In the mouth, however, it renders all labels and review descriptions stupid. These sweet, muscular prawns flushed with succulence had just a wisp of tangy lemongrass essence. The purple sticky-rice with bits of red and yellow pepper was perfectly supple and separate, adding grainy heartiness to the firm prawn flesh. Plus, bits of mango in the mix played off the ocean richness of the prawns with a fruity sweetness. The mild curry sauce added a clean nuttiness, and a salad crown of watercress and jicama washed in a honey miso dressing added a layer of smooth raciness. This is perhaps the best shellfish treatment you'll find in Dallas--maybe anywhere.

AquaKnox works equal wonder with non-fish. The hickory-grilled rack of lamb with charred tomato and wild mushroom sauce had silky, mild 50-cent-piece-sized medallions of meat bound to the ends of the thin curving bones. The sauce proved an unobtrusive complement, and a goat-cheese potato tamale accompaniment was moist, tangy, and delicate--one of the best masa preparations I've come across.

The desserts carried through with this sense of balance. The frozen macadamia-nut bombe was clean and light in its sweetness, and the raspberry and vanilla custard sauces rounded it out with berry sharpness and silky smoothness. The lace cookie-cup with fresh, unadulterated strawberries and blueberries in a puddle of latticed cream and caramel was buttery-rich, crunchy, and brisk. But the coffee was wimpy and lacking in flavor, like it had been brewed with canned grounds through a paper towel.

The wine list could stand some fine-tuning to match the menu excitement as well. Notably absent from the "bubbles" or sparkling-wine section are brut roses, which can be brilliant accompaniments to salmon, tuna, even lobster. As you would expect with a good seafood restaurant, tremendous attention has been paid to white wines, and the list includes a broad selection of Chardonnays and white Burgundies. Plus, the "global whites" section offers fertile ground for experimentation featuring a pinot gris and a Riesling from Alsace, a New Zealand sauvignon blanc, a few Italian whites, and a pair of Sancerres speckling the requisite smattering of California sauvignons and fumes. But where are the concomitant "global reds"? Delicate Burgundies, cru Beaujolais, lighter Chiantis and Riojas, Alsatian pinot noirs, Barberas--any of these wines can pair remarkably well with fish. Unfortunately, the red section seems built around the menu's pair of red-meat selections consisting almost exclusively of California cabs and merlots, although there are a handful of potentially fish-friendly pinots. This shows an uncharacteristic lack of imagination for a space this ripe with creativity. The lack of red wine attentiveness was underscored by the service. Our 1995 Dutch Henry pinot noir was served warm, and I don't mean room temperature. I mean warm as if it had been stored under a heating lamp.

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