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.

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.

But this was the only service slip. Unlike Star Canyon, whose service can be blood-boilingly snotty, the AquaKnox staff are gracious and sincerely eager to please, from the people answering the phone to the valets.

AquaKnox isn't perfect--yet. But it's enormously compelling, with the brunt of its creative juices focused where it should be: on the plate. It's debatable whether a menu like this could survive in Dallas without Pyles' star power. But it's fortunate for us that he isn't resting on his laurels, as the imagination exhibited here is bound to inspire other chefs.

Pyles says he doesn't want to be a working chef anymore. "How many 45-year-old football players do you know?" he asks pointedly. Instead, he wants to create, build, train, consult, and function as chief palate. Wherever his attention is focused, it's clear that as long as he keeps spinning his globe and harnessing talent possessed by the likes of Balliet, we'll all be better off for it--even if he does toss in a grasshopper now and then.

AquaKnox. Knox Street at Cole, (214) 219-2782. Open for dinner, 6-10:30 p.m. Monday-Thursday; lounge serves food until midnight; 6-11 p.m. Friday & Saturday; lounge serves food until midnight; 6-10 p.m. Sunday.

Readers with comments may e-mail Mark Stuertz at markstz@juno.com.

Assorted sushi and sashimi platter $18
Vodka-cured salmon gravlox $15
Lobster corn chowder $10
Potato-crusted sea bass $24
Brown-butter skate $19
Lemongrass prawns $24
Hickory-grilled rack of lamb $25
Frozen macadamia-nut bombe $7
Lace cookie cup with berries $8

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