Aquagrill falls into a certain category for us - one that only includes three or four other establishments. We're going to call it "SoHo Restaurants That Don't Give a F*ck" for the purpose of this review. Others in the category? Blue Ribbon Brasserie and Raoul's. And what exactly do we mean when we say they "don't give a f*ck?" Certainly not that the service is bad. Aquagrill and the others all take very good care of their guests. What we mean is that these places have been around for decades, and as countless restaurants and restaurant trends come and go, they remain standing - unaware and uninterested in the fact that every single new spot in the East Village either has a pork bun on the menu or some guy that looks like Charles Dickens with a swizzle stick making $14 cocktails. These are restaurants that have white table cloths and still give you a bread basket. And they're still packed every night even though bread baskets are NOT cool.
What's funny about the timing of this long overdue review of Aquagrill is that what they do best - raw oysters - are the hot new restaurant thing of the moment. Everyone either has oysters on the menu or has "oyster bar" in the name of the place, like some sort of insurance in case the rest of the food on the menu sucks (see, The Dutch).
Aquagrill has been putting up dozens on the half shell since 1996, and there are very few places that do it as well as they do. On any given day you'll find fifteen varieties, and they're all fresh, cold, and perfectly shucked. That alone is a good reason to come here - if we were rating Aquagrill on raw bar alone it would be a 9.5.
Unfortunately, the rating comes down a bit when you get into the rest of the food here. As you might expect, the menu is almost entirely made up of various seafood offerings, and it ranges from pretty decent to very good. It all depends what you order. We've found that some of the fish entrees can be a bit boring, and that they often rely on things like truffle oil and sesame "crustings" to elevate a dish. After a few bites, you get a little tired. That said, this is the perfect restaurant for a group of vegequarians to get their fish on, and it's also a nice environment for Dinner With The Parents or a downtown business dinner. Just make sure you order a sh*tload of oysters...and don't expect the bartender to make you a sazerac. He'll probably just give you a whisky.
As advertised, these are some of the best in town. Order as many as you can handle.
Spicy Tuna Tartare
A standard but tasty spicy tuna tartare served with some taro chips. You won't be disappointed, but you also won't be blown away.
Warm Octopus Salad
Another stalwart dish at Aquagrill that's probably been on the menu since they opened. It's very good, though not all that memorable. I think we just prefer our octopus grilled.
Toro Tuna Tartare
This is the tartare you want to order. The toro is incredibly good, and it's got some truffle oil on it, which doesn't make it taste worse.
We love a good seafood soup, so this bowl of poached cod, shrimp, mussels, clams, and scallops in a saffron tomato broth was a no brainer. Unfortunately the soup was really too salty, and the garlic aioli on the toasted bread gave us dragon breath for three days. Skip this in favor of a piece of fish.
Miso Glazed Chilean Sea Bass
This is our favorite entree at Aquagrill. It's a piece of miso cod, much like you'd find at Nobu, but a little more refined. The miso flavor is present, but it's not all you taste. And it's an incredibly good piece of sea bass. We also like the kimchi on the plate to break up the flavor in your mouth. Someone at your table should order this.
Grilled Yellowfin Tuna
A pretty standard piece of tuna with some crispy jasmine rice cakes and bok choy on the plate. It's about as safe a dish as you can get at a restaurant, but it's also very good.