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Oct 16, 2006 04:38 PM

Aqua Shocker!

What a joke this place is! Dinner for six last night, 6:30 reservation, and we get seated at a laughably bad table, a table no restaurant of such pretension should even have--a table literally shoehorned into the walkway between front and rear rooms, half over a carpet and half over the tile, DIRECTLY in front of the short hallway to the toilet (so that every single human who felt the call of nature had to brush our back to answer said call), and a table that crowded my father-in-law (who was generously picking up the tab, in celebration of my beloved mother-in-law's birthday) half into the protruding corner of a partition wall. Such a strong, cold draft running through, too, we all kept our sweaters/jackets on.

And that's just the table.

Service was slow, slow, slow, with the waitstaff clearly stretched too thin, running all over the place. The waiter kept calling my wife and my sister in law, both middle-aged mothers of two wearing wedding rings and in the company of their husbands, "miss." When my father in law asked to pay an additional fee to have a cheese course in addition to a dessert course, the waiter was openly ruffled and said that he'd still like to take our dessert orders right away to make sure that we kept up what he called an "expeditious pace" for the evening, and then he took fully twenty minutes to bring the cheese course in question. During that twenty minutes, the bus boy cleared our table, reset our table, and then so completely forgot that he'd reset our table that he set out butter plates and began offering us various kinds of bread rolls, as if we were a freshly seated table. A host figured out the mistake and stopped him and then cleared off the unnecessary butter and bread, but we were still waiting for somebody to slice a little cheese and set it on a plate and bring it to us when a six-runner procession, bringing dinner to some other table, lost three of its members to our table--three clueless runners who thought we were waiting for the main courses they were carrying.

And now for the food: amuse bouche offered as "free, courtesy of the chef." What sort of deluded pomposity is this in a room where you can see every person at every table getting the same amuse as part of their fixed price dinner? Amuse was fine: delicious little stuffed cherry tomato, perfectly passable cold asparagus soup, perfectly passable tuna croquette.

As for the starters and mains: beautiful presentation, as far as plating, very complicated in terms of architecture and technique and mixing of this and that (sturgeon medallions in Napa cabbage with mussels and smoked duck, ambitious ambitious), but I kid you not: luke warm and flavorless. No exaggeration. Beautiful food, beautifully presented, cooked just right, textures perfect, and zero flavor. Everything bland. Same went for the desserts. Our entire party agreed in ginger "so, what did you really think of the food...?" post-dinner emails. It was as if the chef were on vacation and his underlings had the moves down but absolutely no palate and no sense that food should appear on a table when it's hot, not after it's been sitting around for fifteen minutes.

I've never eaten in a Michelin 2 star before, but I'm feeling pretty confused. Most charitable interpretation: a disastrous night at an otherwise sensational restaurant. Only slightly less charitable: Once Aqua got those stars, mngmnt decided to ram as many people as possible through the place, with a minimum of expense, to milk this publicity before it fades. Neither charitable nor particularly vindictive: Michelin's reviewers got very, very special treatment at an otherwise ridiculous restaurant, and didn't go back often enough or anonymously enough to see through the veil. Most likely interpretation: something's screwy with Michelin.

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  1. It has been a few years since I've eaten at Aqua and it still stands out as one of the worst upscale restaurant experiences I've had and the food wasn't good enough to make me ever want to deal with the horrid treatment there.

    I had a podiatrist appointment next door and when I walked into the empty restaurant on a week night and told them I'd be leaving under an hour, I was told there were no tables available but I could eat at the bar. I used my cane that I needed since I was limping to hoist myself onto one of their high bar seats during which time the service was as unhelpful as I've ever had. When I left forty five minutes later, two tables were occupied. It actually was so horrible I did speak to the hostess about it who cared less.

    I've read good reports about Aqau. I think this is a place you have to be 'someone' to get a good table or attention. For some people that is an appeal. Someplaces that are high-rated in tourbooks like Zagut and Michelin don't seem to feel they need to try very hard. Their tables are filled no matter what they do.

    4 Replies
    1. re: rworange

      Then why have people committed suicide over losing a star? Whtever other faults Michelin may have, there's no "tenure" system that prevents de-starring.

      Where are The Stinking Rose's stars? Better a schtick than a star for turnover, methinks.

      1. re: Gary Soup

        Gary, with all that I assume you've read about Michelin SF how can you take it seriously. I'm sure no one is going to be jumping off the GG Bridge if they get de-starred here.

        Anyway, Aqua's faults have nothing to do with Michelin. I've read too many reports on this board and others that are too similar to the OP and my own experince.

        It is amazing to me that people jump to Aqua's defense. This is not a restaurant that opened yesterday. They are usually full during prime time. They should know how to handle service ... if they want to. And even if there is some Michelen effect, at those prices there is no excuse. For whatever, it may or may not mean, if you have two stars, you deliver that service always. You don't have off nights.

        The OP can answer if they asked for another table. I know I did and was unnecessarily refused. The whole attitude was we don't need your type around here. That was fine with me. I don't need to throw my big bucks at a place that isn't top notch in every aspect. IMO, Aqua shows a total lack of class. That just might be me. If you are sporting the right designer clothes, the experience might be different.

        I was in business attire too, so other than limping, I was looking good, I just don't wear labels. My designer shopping has more to do with food. I have always been warmly greeted and had excellent service at Chez Panisse even the few times I dropped by in my shelping around town clothes. CP has class ... and good food.

        1. re: rworange

          Has Aqua usually been full on Sunday nights? The neighborhood is dead and most of the groups I see going in and out (I work nearby and walk past all the time) look like business dinners and conventioneers.

          1. re: Robert Lauriston

            I don't really know. I'm rarely in that part of town. Sure was full last night, though.

            And hey, maybe it's me--this isn't really my kind of scene, truth be told. The ambience of the joint did nothing for me, and perhaps others are wowed by it. I found the service pretentious and silly, while others might find its formality exciting. Still, the food. I'm telling you: lukewarm and utterly bland. Pretty weird.

    2. Could have been the opposite Michelin effect, that of putting a chip on some diners' shoulders, resulting in "I've got yer two stars RIGHT HERE, buddy" ending up on the the tip plate.

      Did you (or your FIL) choose it from the 2-star list? Did you find yourself thinking "two stars, two stars") throughout the meal? Maybe the resto was just trying to deal a the surge of curiosity-seekers steered by the Michelin hype.

      1 Reply
      1. re: Gary Soup

        I don't think it has anything to do with the two stars. I had lunch at Aqua twice this summer, and both times echoed the OPs experience (though the service wasn't bad). The food was just boring. Everyone at lunch with me felt the same, and we certainly didn't come in thinking about Michelin stars, since they weren't out yet. I don't recommend Aqua to anyone anymore, and was genuinely surprised when they got two stars.

      2. They could be scrambling to deal with a surge in business. Could be a bit of the "never order seafood on a Sunday" effect as well.

        The tasting menu looks a lot more interesting than the a la carte.

        It's the customer's right to refuse a table when it's in an unacceptable location.

        3 Replies
        1. re: Robert Lauriston

          I was thinking the same thing, that they may be swamped since the Michelin rating.

          FWIW, I had an exemplary experience at Aqua about three months ago. The food and service were both outstanding.

          1. re: Robert Lauriston

            good point about the table. and I also agree about the tasting menu. I was a guest, and therefore not driving the train in terms of ordering and table selection.

            I do feel, though, that a restaurant can deal with a surge of business in different ways: one is to allow their reservations book to get full at a crowd level the restaurant can handle, another is to start shoe-horning tables into the toilet foyer and hustling people through their meals.

            1. re: Robert Lauriston

              There's no excuse, none, for poor food and service at a place like Aqua. It's a seafood restaurant -- if they can't serve decent seafood on Sunday, then they shouldn't be open Sunday. Nor should an established restaurant at that price point "scramble" for any reason -- it's not a start-up or a little Mom and Pop joint that can justifiably have problems from a sudden surge in business. There shouldn't even *be* a table like the one the OP described at a restaurant like Aqua.

              If they're going to charge full price for the experience, they should offer the full experience. Period.

              Oh, and rworange -- you should have filed an ADA complaint against them for being unwilling to provide reasonable accommodation for someone with a cane.

            2. my FIL was indeed prompted to try the place because of the 2 stars. and I did indeed go through the door knowing that it got 2 stars and that Chez Panisse, my favorite restaurant, did not. so, clearly, I wanted to be impressed and was looking for flaws. I concede this point. But had the place not had the stars, I would simply have substituted the high bar set by stars for the high bar set by price and pretension. It's not as if this is a small, unpretentious restaurant that Michelin discovered and then rewarded, causing the little darlings to be overwhelmed. This is a big, corporate, high-powered dining room with oodles of staff in the heart of the financial district. also, my FIL is a pretty serious restaurant goer. He and my MIL eat out with great regularity and great gusto, and neither of them has any attachment to Chez Panisse or anywhere else. So they can't be accused of having my bias.

              1. and I don't know ... never order seafood on a sunday? at Aqua that would mean never going there on a sunday, wouldn't it? In fact, it would mean they probably shouldn't be open on Sundays, given that supremely fresh seafood is their whole stock in trade (and at least 90% of their menu).

                1 Reply
                1. re: Daniel Duane

                  I think Lauriston was alluding to Tony Bourdain's advice against ordering fish in restaurants on Mondays, when many restaurants likely would be trying to get rid of old fish leftover from the weekend. Here's Bourdain's clarification of that "rule" from a recent interview:

                  BL: You famously taught us the restaurant rule of not ordering fish on Mondays. Does it still apply? Are there any new eating rules you’ve discovered?
                  TB: Fish on Monday? I eat it all the time--but at sushi bars--where the quality is apparent and at Le Bernardin or at any restaurant where they specialize in and have made their reputation on seafood (like Esca) and at restaurants where consistent quality is assured. So I guess I’d like to hedge on that rule. Where it remains a solid, sound ordering policy would be any low to mid range eatery where fish is not the focus. A West Village saloon with a fish special would NOT be a great place to order the skate. I’m not saying they’re going to poison you, I’m suggesting strongly that you wait for Tuesday.


                  Sounds like he would agree with you!