If first impressions are important, good real estate is a real asset for a restaurant. And Aqua, located in Bellagio Harbor Village on Little Sarasota Bay, enjoys that advantage. From the outside, it is unprepossessing — to say the least. Things get worse before they get better, because you enter through a small, dark bar — a great boaters’ hangout, no doubt, but a bit of a dive. Take the elevator to the second floor, however, and you are suddenly in a handsome, glass-walled space that hints of delights to come.
At suppertime, it begins with an intriguing selection of appetizers. It is our policy to try calamari in virtually every restaurant we visit. Like crabcakes, it is widely available; it’s a decent test of provision quality, cooking skill and creativity and, thus, a useful tool for comparing one place to the next. Our first experience of Aqua’s crispy cornmeal-coated calamari ($8.95) was not great; the seafood was a bit tough, the coating a bit dense. Then, we tried the pico de gallo salsa and fell in love. It is a perfect balance of cool and hot, and it is not watery.
Our experience with Aqua’s chopped salad ($7.95) was especially sprightly. It contains romaine, avocado, sweet corn, bell pepper, black beans, grape tomatoes and hearts of palm coated in a cilantro-lime vinaigrette. All the ingredients are chopped to a similar size, the beans are tiny and crunchy, and the dressing prompted one reviewer to purchase a cilantro plant and try it at home with limes from a neighbor’s tree. The Caesar salad ($7.95) came with homemade croutons and a garnish of Sweet 100s grape tomatoes.
The server brought a steak knife with the entrée serving of short ribs ($22.95), but the meat was literally fork tender and needed no knife. The boneless ribs were blessedly not stringy, as this cut can sometimes be.
The meat was rich from its long, slow cooking and accompanied by a Cabernet mushroom ragout, which nicely balanced its abundant flavor. It’s risky business ordering a Thai curry outside of a Thai restaurant, but Aqua’s yellow shrimp curry ($26.96) did not disappoint. It was an off-menu special with jumbo tiger shrimp, jasmine rice and baby bok choy.
Other entrée options on the evening menu included macadamia nut-crusted mahi mahi ($23.95); grilled chicken and penne paste ($20.95); and crispy roast half duck with sundried Bing cherry glaze ($23.95). The vegetable mélange accompanying the entrées consisted of baby zucchini, carrots and a generous proportion of spinach — it was notable.
Most of Aqua’s desserts are outsourced. The crème brulée ($5.95) is made in house, however, with a good-quality vanilla. It comes to table with the appropriately crisp top and an abundant garnish of blueberries, raspberries and strawberries. Aqua’s Key lime pie ($5.95) comes from an outside kitchen — but a perfectly respectable one. Yes, there is a chocolate option: layered chocolate-mousse cake ($5.95).
Service is professional and friendly; additional staff deliver the food orders, assuring that they get to the table hot, and special requests are cheerfully acknowledged and fulfilled.
Aqua’s chef is Matthew Passalacqua, whose local experience includes Ophelia and Mattison’s City Grille. He speaks a lot of culinary languages: Italian, classic French, Thai, Mexican and more. The dishes we sampled suggest impressive fluency in all of them.