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The name conjures water, sun, and with a little imagination, a splashy oceanside oasis, but Aquasol Restaurant and Bar is located behind Wendy's and a Chevron gas station in the decidedly lackluster VPC Center, a faceless shopping mall off Congress Avenue. There's no ocean in sight, but the nearby sprawl of corporate offices contains waves of workers -- lunch crowd. Once the sun sets, however, this stretch of strip mall looks uninvitingly desolate. If the three most important factors for a dinner establishment are location, location, location, Aquasol may be in trouble, trouble, trouble.
Location does count for something, but exterior ambiance does not -- once you enter a restaurant, the outside world pretty much dissipates. Aquasol's interior universe is cozy, the dining room a chic, quasi-industrial space warmed with red woods and bathed in cool lavender, aquamarine, and metallic silver colors. The tables are dressed in white linen, a pristine open kitchen runs along the back wall, and a short, elegant, back-lit bar slings modern martinis with provocative monikers like Jail Bait, the Gold-Digger, and Sex with an Alligator.
The cuisine is referred to as "California Continental," which, as far as I can tell, means that "shrimp cocktail" gets labeled "shrimp martini with cocktail sauce," and coconut-coated chicken skewers come not on a pu-pu platter but as part of a "sampler" (Chef Dudley Bell Rich has probably seen enough of pu-pus, having honed his culinary skills at Four Seasons hotels in Hawaii and California). Call it what you will; the menu here tenders the same sort of foods you'll find at most contemporary American restaurants -- prepared better than some, priced higher than many.
That sampler plate presents an opportune starting point for Aquasol because it contains five of the eight appetizers. The best of these was a trio of greaselessly fried fritters flecked with corn and shrimp; a chipotle mayonnaise dip heightened the savory flavors. Other components were adeptly prepared but altogether ordinary: the aforementioned chicken skewers threaded with thin strips of coconut-breaded breast meat, fried golden brown, capped with a smidgen of papaya relish and pooled in orange marmalade; two eggplant and feta cheese rolls splashed with basil oil; two plump, chilled shrimp with cocktail sauce; and a couple of bite-sized pieces of sesame-seared tuna atop sprightly vinegared Asian slaw and a fried won ton skin. The $28 sampler is meant to be shared; larger à la carte portions of each platter item run from $11 to $17. That's about average, though side salads, like caesar or a regular garden variety with (yawn) balsamic vinaigrette cost $9; all but a few main courses run $32 and up, and desserts are $8. These prices are consistent with restaurants that have an established reputation, heralded chef, dazzling vista of the Intracoastal, or, at least, a menu scribe fond of writing the word truffle. Aquasol has none of these.
California cuisine doesn't imply truffles. But for the past two decades, it has meant more than just using fresh herbs. This menu contains no organic vegetables, grass-fed meats, locally caught seafood, or any other ingredients that warrant the West Coast label. Instead, it relies on older-style continental comestibles like fresh basil, mustard, and a chopped concassé of tomatoes, each of which mark their presence in multiple dishes: Southern fried chicken salad with mustard vinaigrette; grilled vegetables with basil oil; angel hair pasta with feta cheese, chopped tomatoes, and basil oil; pistachio-crusted chicken breast in basil-mustard sauce; crab cakes with tomato-basil relish and mustard cream; and baked salmon with a creamy mustard crust and tomato-basil fondue. The salmon was succulently cooked to a coral pink interior, with a gratinéed cap of rich cream sauce spiked with grain mustard that offered an invigorating counterpoint to the fatty, flavorful fish. If only the tomato-basil fondue were a fondue, or even something approximating a fondue, this could have been -- well, I'm not certain it would have worked anyway, but to see a clump of tomato-basil concassé next to the salmon was as disturbingly disappointing as watching Quentin Tarantino hug Uma Thurman.
Admittedly, there are main courses untouched by basil, tomatoes, or mustard: sirloin steak with crispy onions, oven-roasted chicken, filet mignon with roasted shallots and port wine sauce, and a first-rate scampi-pasta dish that garnered impressive reviews around the table. Five medium-sized shrimp, butterflied and resting upon their shells, encircled a delicate nest of angel hair noodles lightly sauced with tomato and garlic. Each crustacean looked like a pair of puffy white lips sprinkled with Parmesan-flecked bread crumbs, their taste kissed deliciously with garlic. My only qualm was the decision to serve the shellfish in the shell. It wasn't difficult to remove the shrimp, but why make the diner bother and then be left with five shells on the plate?
Another tactical question: Why put perfectly fine lamb chops into thick panko bread-crumbed coats and then drop them into a fryer when they're so delicious simply broiled or grilled? I don't know why, but I know why not: Restaurants don't have the luxury of reserving a fryer just for lamb, so flavors of other fried foods seep into the crust. It's also more difficult to judge a meat's doneness when it's submerged in hot oil -- upon cutting into my trio of "medium-rare" chops, I saw they were clearly overcooked. The waiter politely removed the plate and came over with new chops, new vegetables, and a new side dish of mint jelly. Aquasol's waiters aren't the polished professionals you might still see in some traditional continental restaurants, but they're friendly, accommodating, and extremely capable.