Aqua recently unveiled their new Summer menu, hot on the heels of the refreshed Winter menu I wrote about back in February. While many of my favourite new additions from four months ago have carried through to the next round, there are some new takes on old favourites and a few totally new additions here that I just had to try.
But first a note on the service. Our waitress on this most recent visit was a fantastically informed and very accommodating young woman named Holly. Her enthusiasm was infectious, her ability to answer any question impressive, and her willingness to work within mine and my date’s dietary restrictions was, most of all, reassuring.
Aqua has actually taken the time to rewrite their menu with the gluten-free patron in mind. It’s the same menu everyone else sees, but with indications that something containing gluten has either been removed or replaced with an alternative. On top of that welcomed courtesy, when the bread arrived for my side of the table, my date was presented with a beautiful selection of fresh veggies, such as baby corn on the cobs and asparagus spears, with her own special dipping sauce. Bravo, Aqua.
While the amuse-bouche is nothing new to Aqua, it bears mentioning since it’s always something new whenever I dine there. This time around it was a smoked salmon and cream cheese concoction, with, I believe, pickled red onion, some kind of yellow curried sauce, and I’m not sure what else, but it all came together to create a morsel the likes of which I’ve never experienced before. They say the amuse-bouche is meant to offer a glimpse into your chef’s mind. All I can say is I like the way chef and owner Mark McCrow thinks.
Wings are a welcome addition to Aqua’s selection of small plates. What omnivore doesn’t love wings? Especially when they’re made with gourmet flair. I’m not generally a sauce person when it comes to wings – too often it’s either a sugary or over cranked lava flow of a mess that masks rather than enhances any real flavour – but the sauce on Aqua’s wings has just the right amount of heat to let you know it’s there without drowning out the rich pepper and citrus flavour that accompanies the kick.
Then there’s my new best friend, the pho, a traditional Vietnamese soup served with beef and noodles. This one’s a show stealer. Not only is Aqua’s pho ridiculously delicious, but with every mouthful I felt like I was being strengthened, fortified. If I were preparing to go into battle, or had a five alarm hangover (perhaps a more likely scenario), this pho would be my salvation. It’s practically perfect as is, but if you’d like to turn up the heat, add some bean sprout crunch, a few sprigs of fresh basil, a squeeze of lime or even a splash of hoisin, there’s an attractive platter of traditional garnishes accompanying your bowl that will cater to any such desire.
The pho is now available on the lunch menu, too, which my selfish side almost hesitated to inform you of. Between word getting out on the pho and their always changing $9.99 blue plate special, I expect I’ll soon be needing to make reservations for lunch at Aqua or risk not getting a table.
Some other rave-worthy additions to the lunch menu that I’ve recently carved into include both their New York steak and churrasco chicken focaccia sandwiches. And I mean it on the carving – these are huge sandwiches, best handled with a fork and sharp knife, which they know well enough to provide. The steak was hot, pink and juicy, and played perfectly with the combination of dijon and blue cheese mayo, while the chicken came spiced with a delicious piri piri sauce, which a recent episode of No Reservations with Anthony Bordain taught me is a highly coveted specialty from Mozambique.
Back to the evening menu and onto the mains, my date and I were drawn to Aqua’s updated takes on their halibut and chicken. She, like I, wouldn’t normally order the chicken main, but then couldn’t resist the allure of the apple and goat cheese stuffing. While for me, it was the halibut’s puttanesca sauce that drew me in. The word puttana in Italian means whore, which is a pretty racy name for a sauce, so I obviously had to see where this was going.
Aqua’s puttanesca is slightly salty and oh so delicious, with crushed fresh tomatoes playing host to sliced garlic, olives and capers. A perfect accompaniment to the hulking pieces of QV Honey Brown battered halibut that soon vanished from my plate.
Meanwhile, the combination of the chicken and the apple and goat cheese stuffing atop a heaping portion of roasted veggies, all served within a large deep dish roasting pan, was eliciting oohs and aahs from the chair next to me.
I can’t imagine it’s the norm that a restaurant would update its menu twice in less than five months, but fortunately for Aqua’s patrons, owner and chef Mark McCrow is not interested in the norm. This new menu continues the tradition Mark began many menus ago of whimsy and curiosity driven culinary exploration. Along with all this hot and sunny weather we’ve been having lately, Aqua’s new Summer menu makes for an exciting head start to the season.