Aqua has undergone some evolutionary changes recently. It’s still pretty much a creature of the sea, with a menu that focuses on sushi and seafood entrees. The sushi bar still gleams in the front window and the place has an understated, minimalist sophistication.
But when I reviewed Aqua at its opening two years ago, I was impressed and intimidated by its hipper-than-thou vibe. Everyone who was anyone went to Aqua and they weren’t afraid to let you know it. A change in staff — the former Sous Chef Josh Munchel is now the executive chef and Doug Kornrumph came on as general manager in January — seems to have spawned a change in attitude. The waters feel a little warmer and more welcoming at this new incarnation of the restaurant.
As my husband and I slid into the very same booth we dined in that first time, the server smiled and joked when he asked if we wanted sparkling, still or some of that good Cincinnati tap water. There were some service flaws — a missing menu in one of our menu covers and a dirty fork that had to be replaced — but because the staff seemed genuine and caring, we were able to overlook these errs and enjoy the experience.
We started with a selection from the sushi bar and an order of Fried Tofu with peanut sauce ($6). I had forgotten the recent peanut butter salmonella scare until the dish sat in front of me, but a sauce like this was worth taking a chance on. In fact, the whole dish gives tofu a good name, which is not an easy task. If you are one of those people who feels like they should eat tofu because it’s good for you but don’t because you can’t figure out how to cook it to make it taste good, try this to see what a professional can do with the simple curd. The slim slices of tofu were lightly coated in cornstarch, sesame seeds and a fiery hint of red chili flake then fried. Who knew tofu could be an “Oh my god” dish!
In my mind sushi has run its course as a trend, but whenever I order it I remember why our love affair continues — it’s just damn fun food to eat. It’s really the only time I feel encouraged to play with my food as an adult.
The sushi was fresh and delicious — my husband had the spicy tuna roll ($7), barbequed eel (unagi) ($3) and egg (tamago) ($2). The egg was served a way I had never seen. Usually it is an oval slice of egg strapped on the back of a little mound of sushi rice. This had an architectural look and no rice.
Doing a little research for this review, I found out that tamago, unlike its compatriots, is usually eaten at the end of the dinner as a dessert to curb the appetite. And while it might not be the most popular sushi ingredient, it is the one that sushi chefs use to compete against each other or to show off their skills. Masa Kaneko, Aqua’s sushi chef, would be a shoe-in if prizes are handed out for this: The point of the egg slices stood proudly, reminding me simultaneously of a napkin fold called the bishop’s hat and the Chrysler building.
After our appetizers we moved to land for the entrées, ordering the Chicken! Chicken! Chicken! ($23) and the New York strip steak with a red wine reduction ($25). While I was eyeing the many seafood dishes, such as the macadamia nut crusted sunfish with shemiji mushrooms, garlic sprouts, ginger lemongrass and a buerre blanc sauce ($23) or seared black cod with a gingered lobster claw, sautéed spinach and a lobster cream sauce ($25), I just couldn’t pass up something served with not one but three exclamation points. The half chicken was a complicated dish served with a small spoonful of cheesy mashed potatoes. It was constructed of a leg that was braised, a thigh stuffed with parsnip, rutabaga and apple and a pan roasted breast. My favorite was the breast, but the leg came in a close second.
The steak was served over a citrus-scented wild rice pilaf with steamed snow pea pods and was a perfect if simple dish.
We skipped dessert, but Aqua has some original offerings if you have a sweet tooth. There’s another three-way with apple: five spice wonton, almond apple soup, apple cinnamon ice cream ($6) or an intriguing Carrot ravioli with green tea pannacotta vanilla sauce ($6).
While change can be good, it can also be a risky enterprise in the restaurant business. I’m glad to see that in Aqua’s case the changes are all for the positive.
Go: 1020 Delta Ave., Mount Lookout
Hours: 5:30-9 p.m. Monday; 5:30-10 p.m. Tuesday; 5-midnight Wednesday; 5:30-10 p.m. Thursday; 5:20-11 p.m. Friday; 5-11 p.m. Saturday
Entrée Prices: $12-$25; Sushi Prices: $2-$15
Payment: Major credit cards Red
Meat Alternatives: Seafood, chicken, sushi and vegetarian
Accessibility: Fully accessible