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BIG FISH

BIG FISH
The Brooklyn Papers / Jori Klein

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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