Fifth Floor, 30 Argyll Street, W1B 3BR Tel: 020 7478 0540, www.aqua.com.hk
Cost per person without wine: £50
LONDON’s love affair with the shamelessly glam has been hotting up for several years and Aqua Nueva, the Spanish side of a double rooftop restaurant off Regent Street, fits the bill perfectly. The glam that central London has chosen to embrace – in stark contrast to the more Bohemian, scruffy variety found in the east – is a nocturnal, flashy mirrors and disco ball type (see Luxx on New Burlington Street for another prime example, opened earlier this year). Restaurants in this school of design are like nightclubs, where suits, Russian babes and C-list Europeans romp among magnums of Grey Goose and Crystal, lounging on lacquer and leather banquetry.
Aqua is a Hong Kong company, with outposts in several guises (Italian, Chinese, Spanish, Japanese) in Hong Kong, Beijing and London. In London, Aqua divides off into two restaurants: Kyoto, a Japanese one and Nueva, a Spanish one. In the middle is a clubby bar with chandeliers and lots of stilletoed women.
We were at Nueva, which has an orange, tunnel-like bar area with seating, a fairly bland dining room that my friend described as being like an airport (but with a DJ) and a terrace. We headed out to the terrace for a pre-dinner drink and fell in love. The sun was just setting over the rooftops of the West End, lavender window boxes provided a pretty frame for our glasses and the testosterone-fuelled atmosphere and clusters of black Armani suits made for a heady tipple.
Inside, we felt exposed being two women – if you’re female and presentable, expect lascivious looks from the now-vaguely drunk suits – but certainly not intimidated. Which is why we ordered the house sangria as a second pre-dinner drink. It was fantastic – like a mildly fizzy Pimms served in beakers. It comes with martini glass rammed with dragon-fruit and berries that you drop into the little glasses at whim. Lovely.
Eventually, though, we had to eat something (not, however, before taking the gracious manager up on his excellent recommendation of a white Rioja). And unfortunately, this was where the experience faltered. The food is both expensive and patchy. The executive chef Alberto Hernández has a top pedigree – he used to work at El Bulli – but here in this clubby skytop pod it seems his skills are thrown off their natural course.
0The food is not strictly bad, of course. And it looks jolly impressive: the likes of crab ravioli with grilled cuttlefish and cuttlefish soup, octopus with smoked Spanish paprika, and Castilla-style roast lamb shoulder. But when we dug in with great excitement, we were met with odd textures and overcooked purees. Asparagus parcels with lemon butter and piquillo pepper mille feuille sounded enthralling, but tasted amateurish and misjudged; the asparagus was a sorry paste and the peppers were just wet slabs of red. The millefeuille was a gold-coloured biscuit. Altogether we were left scratching our heads; the establishment that produced this awkward dish seemed at odds with the one we had experienced on the super-sleek terrace. On we ploughed with the scallops: two tiny creatures that were cooked unremarkably and ill-paired with clodden potato puree and porcini mushrooms that did nothing to uplift or add zing – at £9.50 the price was not quite right.
The lobster with chickpeas and crispy pork was excellent in flavour but again, there was a texture issue as the lobster had none of that rubbery oceanic quality that is should have; it was rather soft. Sob.
Mains were mixed. Monkfish – normally lovely and robust and meaty – was a big let-down: it was far too soft again (dare I say overcooked?) and its olive encrustation did nothing to save it. However, the roast suckling pig with crispy orange zest and apple butter was an absolute winner. Perhaps we should have stuck to meat all along. In fact, I know we should have. This was a melting hunk of pig topped with a treacly wafer of crackling that fell to pieces with a fork and oozed buttery, fruity juices. I gobbled most of it, the result being that my friend was often left with her fork in the air.
Desserts again presented a split in niceness. The fortune-cookie style “canelon” biscuits stuffed with banana puree and served in orange soup was so 1990s we didn’t quite know what to do with ourselves. Our fault for ordering it despite fair warning of “orange soup” – but then, the banana puree was what lured me (and it was good, thank you). Still, I thank God we didn’t have the pineapple ice cream with mojito soup.
A chocolate and hazelnut cake was solid but uninteresting.
Go to Aqua to be part of London’s love affair with high octane, clubby glamour. But perhaps give Kyoto a try, too – the Japanese side is supposed to be good. The thing is, there are so many delightful Spanish restaurants in London now – they may not be as glamorous as Nueva but the food in places such as Barrafina and Dehesa is both better and cheaper.