As cool and bright as the food it serves, Aqua Blu offers diners a refreshing taste of local and imported seafood. Located in the heart of Downtown San Diego, conspicuous under a large turquoise awning, Aqua Blu is a welcome oasis in the center of the ordinary. Relying on the experience of Chef Christopher Powell, they are serving up a paramount selection of Pan Asian Inspired dishes such as traditional Roasted Sea Bass, and the more adventurous Squid Ink and Wasabi Ravioli. With such an enthusiastic chef at the helm it is no surprise that the menu features some of the best the sea has to offer.Read More ...
Stunning. Delicate. Exquisite. I could go on, but then I’d be gushing, and the tastes and flavors at Aqua Blu are something you should really experience for yourself. The restaurant, a bold and exciting space in the heart of the Gaslamp, has been serving excellent seafood for over six years, although it was a recent change that triggered my enthusiasm. Aqua Blu has welcomed new Executive Chef Russell Hawkins, whose culinary approach, techniques, and philosophy seem to be slowly revolutionizing the Aqua Blu experience.
My date and I visited Aqua Blu on an evening when Chef Hawkins was just implementing a new menu, and he offered to prepare a tasting of several new dishes. We eagerly agreed, and were pleased to learn that Hawkins eventually plans to introduce tasting menus on a regular basis at Aqua Blu.
We ordered an aperitif in anticipation of Chef Hawkins’s meal, then, sipping on a glass of Martin Ray “Marriage” Chardonnay from Russian River Valley, sat back to enjoy our surroundings. The dining room was refreshingly intimate, with curved lines and a modern look that was both sleek and comfortable. Soft colors swept through the room; while bursts of teal and gold, framed textures on the walls, and colored lights projected onto white-paneled ceilings offered a lively and playful touch. While we chose to sit inside, the outside patio looked equally inviting, especially the two lush corner booths under the patio’s awning.
The arrival of the first course marked a turning point in our evening, when we went from simply enjoying ourselves to being stunned. The Dungeness Crab and Scallops Tempura offered a truly royal commencement of our meal: a plump, commanding scallop sat atop a throne of golden hollandaise sauce, cloaked in a crispy ring of nori and crowned by a luscious slice of Dungeness crab and micro greens. The first bite sent us into a world of heightened sensuality, the crisp, flash-fried nori crust giving way to buttery scallop, both bursting with not only flavors but texture. The nori tasted leafy with a hint of both sweetness and salt, the scallop sweet and creamy. The hollandaise sauce offered the faintest hint of spice and the crab, succulence. We eagerly relished each understatedly complex and savory bite, realizing there was no turning back—this would prove to be an astonishing meal.
Next, the Beet Carpaccio presented a delicate trio of red, gold and candy cane beets shaved thin and laid underneath dainty goat cheese croquettes, accompanied by julienne beet greens, mint, basil, and a shallot and sherry vinaigrette. The thin slivers of pink, gold, and dark purple circles were arranged so carefully on the plate that the dish could have hung on the wall as work of modern art. Each sliver of beet seemed refreshing and pure, especially in contrast to the decadent and creamy croquettes. The brilliance of the dish was the integration, which somehow allowed each ingredient to remain distinct. A bite of beet plus croquette was precise—the earthy beet and the creamy cheese offered two simultaneous flavors rather than melding as one. It was an intentional dichotomy—the croquette’s crisp shell served to isolate the cheese—and one that intrigued me long after the dish was taken away.
Our first entrée, Mushroom Crusted Salmon with Japanese mushroom fricassee, salsify root, and garlic herb emulsion was impressive even before we took a bite. The colorful dish featured bright pink salmon crusted in black mushrooms, accompanied by bright green foam, subdued garnet salsify, and a bundle of golden mushrooms. It was a perfect example of the varied influences that seemed to seep into Chef Hawkins’s cuisine, combining European and Asian ingredients as well as modern and classic technique. The salmon was perfectly tender, with a crunchy black shell of mushrooms that had been dried in house and then crushed into a course powder. The braised and then crisped salsify—a root vegetable that was new to me—offered a wonderfully complex, almost meaty flavor that left me wanting more. The honshimeji mushrooms were juicy and nutty, and the garlic herb emulsion creamy and bright. The dish was both delicate and rich, subtly combining flavors and tastes so that no one element seemed overpowering.
As if sensing the complexity of the last dish, Chef Russell sent out a soothing, refreshing counterpart: Blue Nose Grouper steamed in a banana leaf, plated with baby bok choy and a yellow thai curry that was combined with a young coconut broth. The dish was immensely fragrant with aromas of coconut and spice. Fragrance was followed by delicateness, as each element from the coconut to the curry to the fish offered an almost elusive distinct flavor. The fish itself was firm with a sweet mild taste that seemed defined by the bold curry spice and sweet essence of coconut. Together, the dish tasted wholesome but light, with a mysterious complexity that was at once familiar and exotic.
Our next delight was Jidori Chicken Udon, a satisfying dish that explored and embraced the essence of chicken. The preparation centered around a house-made smoked chicken consommé which was first used to poach a chicken breast and then served along with slices of the breast in a bowl with house-made udon noodles, Japanese mushrooms, and togarashi sausage, which had also been prepared in-house from the dark meat of the chicken. The result was a well-integrated dish that resonated with flavor and fragrance. The consommé was almost sweet and distinctly smoky, the poached breast moist and succulent. The sausage, made with a Japanese 7-spice blend, was feisty and intensely flavorful, seeming to exhibit all five basic tastes at once. Even the noodles were intriguing. We sampled a smooth and mellow Cartlidge & Brown Pinot Noir from Napa with this dish, although it was the dish, not the wine that we would remember.
We moved on to a Wynn’s Coonawara Estate Shiraz from Australia for our last dish, a Grilled Prime Filet Mignon accompanied by truffled bacon and onions, baby carrots, veal jus and potato galette. For the third time a savory aroma arose from the plate, seeming so irresistible we quickly dug in. The beef was tender, although the unique, amazingly rich bacon and onions stole the show. Caramelized onions blended with barely discernable bacon and rich truffle oil mingled with the veal jus on the plate to create a rare and memorable intensity.
As our plates were cleared, hints of tastes from our meal still lingered, and I relished the tingling sensation on my tongue. Russell sent out an intermezzo to clear our palates, a melon-ball scoop of house made chai ice cream, bursting with spice and vanilla and tantalizing our palates with the promise of dessert.
The dessert itself was a masterpiece; although simply titled Two Bavarian Creams, it was quite intricate. A harmless-looking form of glistening milk chocolate sat on the plate, hiding a treasure of delicate flavor inside. Hawkins enthusiastically described the process of the dessert’s preparation: he first made a small mold of chocolate and raspberry Bavarian cream, which was then dipped in white chocolate, then encased in a second mold of vanilla Bavarian cream, which was then all together dipped in dark chocolate to become the dessert on our plates. The milk chocolate shell gently broke open to reveal two distinct creams separated by a thin sliver of white chocolate. A bite was rich with flavors but not heavy or burdensome, a theme that had carried itself throughout our entire meal.
We left Aqua Blu with smiles on our faces, feeling like we had just experienced a delightful surprise. While we had expected a good meal, there was something about our dining experience that we could not have anticipated. It was just a detail—not the quality, or the service, or the ambiance—but some combination of the Chef’s enthusiasm; the well thought out intricacies of each dish; and the lightness and delicateness not only of each element, but of the combination of elements on the plate. Somewhat elusive, it was this that had instilled us with a sense of wonderment, each dish calling for our full attention so that we explored and delighted in its subtle complexity. In an increasingly populated sea of restaurants, it is sometimes the little things that set one apart from the rest. Aqua Blu, we discovered, has emerged from this sea with distinction.
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