Big restaurants are back in fashion, despite the recession. The opening of Aqua London has finally justified the eager anticipation and media hype that preceded it. Owner David Yeo hopes to follow the success of his Aqua group in China, where he has fourteen restaurants, including the Michelin starred Hutong in Hong Kong. Aiming to attract a stylish, well heeled clientele, Aqua offers fine dining in a juxtaposition of Spanish and Japanese restaurants – Aqua Nueva and Aqua Kyoto – with a cocktail bar – Aqua Spirit. Located in what used to be the Dickins and Jones department store, Aqua’s canopied entrance is in Argyll Street, opposite the London Palladium. Passing trade is unlikely as no menus are displayed. Lifts transport you to the fifth floor; then, to access Aqua Nueva, you are escorted through a stunningly illuminated glass corridor. The charging bull’s head sculpture at the far end prepares you for the Spanish styled décor of the main restaurant.
Aqua Nueva comprises a spacious dining area complete with a tapas bar and a long parallel row of tables lined with banquettes. Designed by owner David Yeo and Glamorous Co of Osaka, the light wood décor with mock Spanish porcelain tiles (actually made of oak) is attractively lit, creating a warm, comforting feel. Of particular note when looking up are the 15,000 hand turned oak spindles which create an upper screen lowering the ceiling height.
Chef Alberto Hernandez, who has experience at Ell Bulli (3 Michelin stars) and Atrio (2 stars), offers a menu of refined, modern northern Spanish dishes in the cocina nueva style Whilst the cooking is not of the standard of his two previous restaurants, it is, in these early days, confident and competent. Portions are generous and prices modest, given the quality of ingredients.
Nibbles of olives and bread were accompanied by an excellent olive oil from Andalucia, of which the management was very proud.
A starter comprised three well timed seared scallops with velvety potato puree and deeply fragrant porcini mushrooms. Unfortunately, a little grit still remained from the scallops, spoiling the dish. On a more positive note, a lobster with chickpea puree was a well judged combination of flavours and textures: the lobster retained its sweet succulence, being balanced by thin slivers of crispy pork.
Main courses were excellent in their conception and execution. Signature dishes include 24 hour marinated and braised oxtail with pumpkin puree and Mille feuille of sea bass and cockles with Spanish vinaigrette and cockle jell
Roe deer in a parsley crust was cooked to a perfect medium rare which produced a melting quality, full of gentle gamey flavour. This was offset by a not too sweet autumn berry sauce.
Beef tenderloin with sautéed foie gras was a rich, indulgent dish. Whilst the port glaze was slightly over reduced, it did not totally detract from the cooking of the beef, which was very precise.
A dish of pig’s trotter was deconstructed into squares of unctuous spiced meat offset by a delicate peach chutney. The accompanying vegetables were simply presented, possibly not to detract from the main components. However, a little more imagination would not go amiss.
Desserts were, perhaps, less successful than the mains. Canelon biscuits were filled with a banana and orange cream: not particularly inspiring. A dish of chocolate comprised ice cream, cake, mousse, flan and caramel had nothing to offset the richness.
No doubt the minor shortcomings of kitchen and menu will be eliminated as the restaurant gets into full swing. The service is headed by the charming Constantino, who discretely and efficiently directs his team
Aqua’s spacious and comfortable venue also includes four private dining areas and two terraces with spectacular views of central London. Another main attraction is its pricing structure: starters range form £7.50 to £12 whilst fish and meat mains are £14 to £23. Wines start from £16 a bottle, ten being served by the glass from £4.50. All this means that Aqua Nueva deserves to be successful. If it can attract the right crowd, – some of whom were being given tours on the night we visited – it can emulate the earlier success of big West End night spots such as Terence Conran’s Mezzo, Oliver Peyton’s Atlantic Grill and Marco Pierre White’s Mirabelle.