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Regional Italian cuisine, white truffles from Alba, Acqua’s dishes are creative, yet simple enough to enable the natural flavors of the quality ingredients to take center stage
By Jana Soeldner Danger
Fresh herbs growing seconds away from the kitchen outside Aqua on the seventh floor of the Four Seasons Miami are just one example of Executive Chef Marco Bax’s commitment to excellence.
The menu at Aqua showcases cuisine from the chef’s native Lombardy in Northern Italy, along with Mediterranean accents and more than a nod toward today’s emphasis on food that is lighter and more healthful. Although Mr. Bax honed his culinary skills at high end restaurants such as Il Teatro at Four Seasons Hotel Milano, and Quadrato at Four Seasons Hotel Canary Wharf in London, he claims that his inspiration comes from his mother’s home-cooking in Bergamo, Italy.
In the dining room, understated earth tones like gold, caramel, and ochre provide a casually elegant setting to complement the cuisine. The visual focal point of the space is a large, temperature-controlled wine rack that houses some of the restaurant’s pricier vintages.
The wine list itself is extensive. With 200 selections from Italy, California, France, Australia, and South America, it offers enough range to please beginners as well as aficionados. By-the-glass selections are well-chosen and start at $7. There are also a dozen different bottled waters from various regions. Full bar service is available, too.
The measure of care a chef gives food is often apparent in the bread he or she serves, and that is certainly the case here. A basket arrives with three contrasting kinds of made-on-the-premises breads: chewy sourdough ciabatta; crunchy parmesan crisp, prepared with freshly grated cheese; and hearty, rough-textured German multigrain. Butter accompanies the basket, but so does a bottle of limited production olive oil that is served in just 16 restaurants worldwide. (Chefs have to interview for the privilege.) Only 2,600 liters are produced annually, and the delicate, fruity oil is delicious enough so you could drink it rather than use it as a bread dip.
White Truffles find their way into Appetizers
We began with some impeccably fresh, sweet stone crabs (three pieces $35, five pieces $55) spiked with a slaw made with papaya, wakame and plantains, all of which conjured a Latin flair with its contrasting crunch and refreshing coolness.
It’s currently white truffle season and chef Bax uses them effectively. A shaving of them added a rich, earthy aroma to the herbed cream sauce -- somehow bland -- napping otherwise wonderfully flavored goat cheese tortelloni. This dish was a starter in a three-course prix-fixe menu (priced at $38.00 for food only and $55.00 paired with suggested wine flights) that changes weekly according to the seasons’s ingredients. “We wanted to celebrate the creativity and traditions of the different regions of Italy,” said chef Bax who offers for antipasti fresh burrata – a creamy mozzarella from the south of Italy; for primi handmade gnocchi with red chicory, Gorgonzola and walnut sauce, homemade eggplant stuffed ravioli with veal just, and fusilli with rock shrimp, green beans and potato-pesto sauce in the style of Liguria
A delicious mix of very fresh, lightly fried rock shrimp, calamari, and soft-shell crab ($18) was crispy on the outside, moist and delicate on the inside. The very light breading drew in the natural flavors of the seafood, and the dish was just spicy enough.
Other starters include Pepper crusted seared carpaccio with marinated eggplant; a trio of salmon (tartare, lime and cilantro cured, and smoked terrine); home made tagliolini with wild mushrooms and thyme, and seared jumbo scallops with sweet and sour shallot relish.
Outstanding entrees: traditional dishes are big in flavors
Oven-baked rack of lamb was outstanding. The meat had the delicate, mild taste that comes only with a very young animal. Beautifully cooked, the thick, juicy chops were lightly crusted with parsley and mustard; a perfect complement to the Sicilian caponata, the gratineed tomato and the potato fondant.
The seafood stew was a classic made with fresh, flavorful and perfectly cooked generous portions of fish, calamari, and shrimp in a mild broth of tomato and fish stock -- which could have used a bit more spice, with roasted pine nuts adding depth and contrasting crunch to the softer textures of the seafood.
Worth of exploration are other entrees such as a particularly good roasted yellowtail snapper with blue crab and fingerling potatoes, with prosecco lemon-thyme sauce; broiled Maine lobster with saffron risotto and peas; Dover sole with marjoram, artichokes, mashed potatoes and champagne sauce; seared branzino; char-grilled swordfish filet; seared pork medallions; grilled beef tenderloin; and roast yellowtail snapper with blue crab.
Prepared under the watchful eye of executive pastry Chef Franck Monnier, desserts at Acqua combine classics with creativity. His tres leches are probably the best we’ve ever had. The sweet, milk-soaked sponge cake is topped with crunchy coconut shavings and fat fresh raspberries and blackberries, and finished with whipped cream. Even more delicious was frozen pistachio croccantino with raspberry sorbet and a berry balsamic reduction. The crunchy cookie was a perfect base for the delicate, refreshing sorbet and the fruity sauce. Other desserts include a lip-smacking chocolate napoleon ($10); lemon-raspberry crème brûlée ($9) and a luscious Valrhona chocolate molten cake ($9). But don’t feel sad that you’ve finished a splendid meal…Coffee brings a tall vase filled with roasted coffee beans in which are planted thin sheets of dark and white chocolate!
Acqua goes beyond what might be expected from a hotel restaurant. Regional Italian cuisine, white truffles from Alba; chef Bax’s dishes are creative, yet simple enough to let the natural flavors of quality ingredients take center stage.