If you don't like to eat in public, Aqua Italian Bistro and Bar is just about perfect. Think of it as a don't-see-anyone/won't-be-seen kind of place.
On two visits, a weekday dinner and a weekend lunch, we find cavernous Aqua sitting empty. "Are you open?" I ask, squinting into the unattended bar area. On a fool's errand, I called the day before for a reservation.
A waiter appears out of murky shadows behind the bar and leads us past sleek leatherette sofas and flat TV screens blaring basketball highlights. We are seated in the back dining room whose tables are separated from a dance floor (also empty while we're there) by rectangular sheets of bumpy white plastic hung from the ceiling. Conical overhead lamps cast a jaundiced glow onto brown plastic tablecloths ringed with ghostly evidence of last night's cocktails. Tables are set with silverware on paper napkins. Inky stains mark the harlequin-patterned carpet.
Since last year Aqua has occupied the space next door to Gloria's Tex-Mex on Lemmon Avenue. Bad feng shui has worked against various lounges and hamburger emporia that have tried and failed in the same location, and it hasn't been exorcised. There is a whiff of neglect perfuming the dank chill of this room. It is not in any sense a cozy bistro. The décor aims for sophistication and might be considered chic--in an airport in Eastern Europe.
The dining room's sleek, pale chairs are the best feature. They look nearly new and barely sat in, each curved chair back sporting a perfectly round cut-out. "What would you call the style of this place?" I ask my dining companion, who knows some things about furniture and food. "Industrial dirty," he whispers. Then, looking at the chairs: "I'd call these 'Danish Modern glory hole.'"
We have to ask for the wine list. "Can you recommend a nice white?" I ask. Our waiter visibly twitches at the request. He suggests a 2003 Robert Mondavi Fume Blanc ($40), and we agree. He then brings an already uncorked 2004, which lacks the silky sweet-citrus flavors of the 2003 and, left unchilled on the table, soon takes on a persistent skunkiness.
Chef Sage Sakiri's menu for Aqua is billed as "New American-Italian fusion." Con-fusion is more like it. The menu reads fancy, but dishes arrive not quite as billed. We scan the list of appetizers, which includes seared scallops with lavender honey and balsamic mushroom chutney; sweet potato gnocchi with brown butter and walnuts; Manila clams; smoked oysters in a four-cheese sauce and truffle oil. We ask for a sampling plate ($17.95) and are served a lazy, less-than-generous assortment: two little shrimp in a tepid crème fraîche; a pair of crumbly crab cakes more in the category of lunchroom croquettes; a short mound of fatty duck sausage, sliced and drowned under a dark brown sauce that tastes strongly of pancake syrup, balsamic vinegar and maybe a splash of port. It has the viscosity of high-grade motor oil.
In two meals at Aqua we will become well acquainted with the dark brown sauce.
No pizzas or other typical bistro dishes are apparent, but the menu billboards squid ink linguine and lobster and chive ravioli. Fish dominates the entrées and pastas, but attempts to order some prove frustrating. "The lobster ravioli hasn't come in yet," we are told. Ditto the monkfish. Salmon, prepared with pine nuts and Dijon crème, is in the house. My companion orders that. I go another direction and ask about the rack of lamb. No go. Veal scaloppini? The waiter turns up his palms in a noncommittal shrug. I order it anyway. Still hungry after the meager starters, we also order the minestrone with almond pesto.
Seconds later we're presented a flat wide bowl of tomato-based broth filled to the edges with orange cubes of carrot. No almond pesto. And none of the makings of traditional minestrone. It is a noodle-free, bean-free, un-herbed, un-garlicked, lukewarm tomato-carrot mush that might have been lurking on a back burner since just before St. Swithin's Day.
We are still the only diners, so the entrées come quickly. On one plate a thick slab of white-pink salmon, no crust or pine nuts in evidence, rests under a ladling of the same bland white cream that dampened the shrimp appetizer. The fish leans against a heaping mound of mashed potatoes and a tangled curl of steamed dry carrot shreds. "It's just...OK," says my friend, picking at the salmon.
My veal scaloppini, described on the menu as "topped with prosciutto, fontina cheese and sage leaf demi wine sauce," turns out to be several thin leathery planks of grayish meat fighting to escape the same sticky dark brown sauce we encountered on the duck sausage. No capers or mushrooms, usually found in scaloppini recipes. No prosciutto, fontina or hint of a sage leaf. The sauce isn't even a pedestrian Marsala, just an all-purpose syrupy goo covering meat so tough it won't yield to fork or knife. To the side, more steamed carrot shavings and mashed potatoes.
We ask for bread--twice before we're taken seriously--and are rewarded with a plastic bowl containing two cold hunks of sliced baguette. A teeny black dish shines with something cold and wet that we suspect is olive oil. It makes the dry bread taste only cold and wet. There is no butter.
The waiter, who disappears into some corner of Aqua's vastness for about an hour, comes back to clear the table and notices the veal is untouched. He says he'll take it off the bill and does. Now I understand the shrug.
Dessert choice offers no choice, just crème brûlée served not in crockery ramekins but in shallow tart dishes. The caramelized top layer is so thin it denies the fun of the "crack." The watery custard leaves a strong undertaste. "What is that?" I ask my tablemate, feeling like Mia Farrow unable to swallow Ruth Gordon's mysterious mousse in Rosemary's Baby. He rolls a dollop of yellow pudding onto his tongue. "Lemon Pledge," he says. And he's right.
I return for lunch with another friend a few days later, finding Aqua just as deserted as before. The same waiter hustles us back to the dining area but doesn't bother to turn on the lights. We peer at each other in semi-darkness, listening to the whoosh of traffic on Lemmon. Tables around us haven't been cleared of beer bottles or espresso cups from the night before.
She opts for "grilled double-cut pork tenderloin with oven-roasted peppers, Portobello [mushrooms] and shallots." Wanting to eat light, I go for an appetizer of "Roman stuffed artichoke with garlic wine."
No shallots, mushrooms or peppers come with the pork slices, which lie limply under a heavy shellacking of the dark brown sauce. Next to that, the now familiar carrot shavings and mashed potatoes.
The brown sauce even shows up on my appetizer, squirted in random swirls around the plate. They get a lot of play with this stuff, I say, imagining a sauce-filled tanker truck pulling up weekly to refill a vat in the kitchen.
The artichoke is halved and covered with soggy bread crumbs. The outside leaves are blazing hot, the inside ones ice cold, like a leftover zapped not quite long enough in the microwave. The fibrous stem has been left on, along with some of the stringy inside thistle. I pick away at the leaves, searching in vain for tender bits to enjoy. But like everything else at Aqua, the artichoke is served without a heart. 4140 Lemmon Ave., 214-599-2616. Open 11 a.m.-2 p.m., 4 p.m.-10 p.m., Monday-Saturday; 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Sunday. $$-$$$
Get the Dining Newsletter
The week's top local food news and events, plus interviews with chefs and restaurant owners, dining tips, and a peek at our print review.