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BIG FISH

Multinational menu at Aqua leaves diners drowning in boatloads of fresh seafood

for The Brooklyn Paper
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Push through the glass doors of Aqua, the three-month-old seafood restaurant on Smith Street, and the cooling effect of the room’s decor begins to set in. A moment later you’ll adjust to the damp, deliciously cool air conditioning that feels like a mist of sea spray on the skin.

Seconds after settling into a seat, you realize that the room has more color than you originally thought. It takes only a minute or two to notice a design touch that must have given the interior decorator heart palpitations. You see, whoever chose the pale, dusty green wall colors, the wooden ceiling motifs that elegantly reference waves and boat beams, and modern overhead lights that resemble delicate stars, couldn’t possibly be the person who hung print-after-garishly-colored-village-by-the-seaside-print around the room. The art, and I use the word loosely, does for this clean, modern space what a gold lame bustier does for an Armani suit.

In a funny way, a similar misstep appears in the restaurant’s concept. Aqua’s owners, Giuseppe Salvitti and Salvo Scalia, operate Savoia, a popular Italian restaurant nearby. They knew that after Smith Street Kitchen closed, no high-end seafood restaurant has opened on the street to take its place. They were right about a sophisticated fish eatery, if only the owners opened a place with a simple, focused menu. Instead, they’ve ransacked the globe and developed a mostly seafood menu.

Start with the two pages of appetizers. First, I have to ask why a small restaurant would burden its three-person kitchen with 11 appetizers when five would do? And why 13 entrees? On the appetizer roundup are grilled octopus bruschetta, chicken samosas, crayfish etouffe and tea-smoked bluefin tuna paired with tobiko caviar. Among the entrees are grilled Palermo-style tuna, Sunam salmon, black bass en papillote and a Creole grouper gumbo with buttermilk biscuits.

Welcome to the United Nations’ cafeteria.

Aqua’s chef, Belinda Ber, who formerly owned Harvest Moon, a market-driven bistro on Long Island, describes the menu as "Mediterranean with multinational influences," a description that is reflected in her menu. Those global influences, and a tendency towards, in Ber’s words, "bounty on the plate," can overwhelm her dishes.

The antojitos, a seafood sampler on the appetizer list, is a lesson in excess. Piled on a long, rectangular white plate is a little bit of this and that. There are mussels sprinkled with capers; esceviche of squid ("es" because its cooked briefly; the "ceviche" means the fish finishes "cooking" in lime juice); a very smoky house-cured piece of salmon filet; raw tuna dressed with olive oil and lemon; a "mojo" Spanish-style red pepper sauce with too much paprika; tobiko caviar; a couple of undercooked pieces of potato and too many olives.

Few of the elements were especially toothsome, nor did they complement one another. And, while I applaud Ber’s generosity, less on that plate, at least visually, would be more.

She fares better with mussels in a vibrant, intensely garlicky broth. The mollusks were perfectly cooked and layered around the bowl in an open-mouthed spiral. Thick slices of toasted Portuguese bread scattered with raw garlic soaked up the light broth.

Ber’s Corsican bouillabaisse could be renamed "Death by Fish," but eating it wouldn’t be a bad way to go.

It’s a beautiful bowl piled high with mostly shellfish. There’s a whole, delicately sweet crayfish, three huge shrimp, several plump mussels and a large fish fillet, sauced with a bit of garlicky, paprika-heavy broth. Clementines perfume the sauce and add a pleasant sweet-tart quality to the dish. The size of the serving is overkill, but it’s meant to be shared - one bite of that little crayfish tail per person.

The Sunam salmon was less successful. The big, meaty salmon fillet poached in lemon, lime, chili and coconut was almost bitter when I first tried it, although it mellowed as I continued eating. The fish is paired with basmati rice flavored with caramelized ginger - a fancy description for slightly dry, gingery rice. Little sugar-snap peas sauteed in butter were delightfully crisp and added pleasant color to the plate.

Staying closer to home, Ber offers a delectable Devil’s food cupcake with a slick of bittersweet chocolate icing. It’s not really a cupcake, but a small, warm round of chocolate cake. There’s a puddle of creamy, not-too-sweet sauce made from the creamy Italian cheese mascarpone that cuts the sweetness. A couple of raw kumquats add a pretty spark of green to the plate, but their bitterness threw the harmony of the dessert out of whack. Avoid them.

Smith Street, with its blocks of international eateries, is as competitive a restaurant row as any other. The desire to lure patrons with big plates, big menus and big ideas is understandable. Maybe diners would be disappointed with portions meant to sate one person and not three, and five perfectly cooked ingredients instead of 12. Am I the only person who wants to say, "Please don’t supersize me?"

Aqua (174 Smith St. between Warren and Wyckoff streets in Boerum Hill) accepts Visa, MasterCard and American Express. Entrees: $17.50-$24.50. The restaurant serves dinner Monday through Saturday. Closed Sundays. For reservations, call (718) 643-1589.

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