I realise it is unprofessional to read another restaurant review before writing my own, but then who sets the rules? Aqua Nueva is just so unusual that I felt like drawing inspiration from elsewhere.
So I turned to A. A. Gill, the black prince of British gastronomy and self-appointed scourge of wicked restaurateurs across the land, whose choice prose, laden with malice, has inspired so many pallid imitations and reduced the contemporary restaurant review to a kind of blood sport, not far removed from badger baiting.
An important point to remember is that any dining is a singular and once-off experience, and diners have different tastes: one man’s hovering waiter is another’s pristine service, and if we are to discount Dolly the sheep, no piece of meat is the same as the next. Furthermore, kitchen staff turnover with great rapidity, especially in London, and with them the composition of any dish. Finally, architectural tastes are famously subjective, just look at our 1960s inheritance. Readers of reviews should season well.
Gill gave Aqua Nueva one star out of a potential five, but his reasons for doing so are obscure. As is typical with the playground bully/News Corporation-speak style he favours, one dish he orders, ‘egg-yolk in jelly’, is described as being ‘like a big wine gum of puss’. There seems little doubt that this dish was ordered precisely for the sake of the withering put-down, indeed there is no indication that he even tasted it. One assumes that the esteemed gastronome cannot reference that taste.
Gill goes on to describe another dish as ‘edible but not pleasurable’, while the jamon iberico is grudgingly called ‘good’ but it ‘is not always £18’; though we find no price comparison. He reserves most of his considerable venom, however, for an architectural feature:
‘There are things hanging from the roof, hundreds of things, thousands of turned wooden things, streams like trolls’ shower curtains. Who knows what they’re for, or why they are. It’s a suspended avalanche of trine. Spindles, or butt plugs.’
Suffice to say he doesn’t like the effect, and the playground bully emerges again, but lacking is any acknowledgement of the individuality of his own preferences. He is, it is clear, the sole arbiter of taste.
Gill’s experience certainly did not chime with my own. In fact I thoroughly enjoyed my meal, though Aqua Nueva is not the sort of restaurant where I would usually dine. Then again, I choose to live outside the metropolis and my tastes tend to be antediluvian.
With an Old English scholar of considerable appetite, I entered, or should I say ascended to Aqua Nueva which is above a department store on Regent’s Street.
Restaurants are generally intimately connected to street life so by taking a lift up to the fifth floor it did seem like we were entering another dimension: ‘Gosh, it’s like a restaurant on the Starship Enterprise’ was my friend’s startled reaction after passing through the separate Japanese restaurant and cocktail bar into a Spanish restaurant which housed a substantial tapas bar and a sprawling balcony area with views over the city. The wooden thingamajigs hanging in the tapas restaurant are clearly not to everyone’s taste but they do create a faintly oriental mystique.
We were welcomed by a hostess who made Lieutenant Uhura in her pomp look positively dowdy, and decided to munch our way through a selection of tapas to whet appetites.
We stuck to the stalwarts: patatas bravas, tortilla espanol, pan con tomate, jamon iberico, croquettas and two of their specials: carpaccio of monkfish and lamb chops in a red wine jus and tarragon cream. We were also presented with two types of mojo, a delicious Canarian condiment that combines olive oil, in the first case with blended peppers and the second, avocado. The standard tapas were almost faultless; they clearly source their jamon well, my only quibble was with the absence of béchamel to offset the spicy sauce of the patatas, and the fact that the croquettas were lacking a little in jamon. The lamb was divine, tarragon smoothing the passage of the heavy dairy, but I felt the monkfish did not work as it lacked any discernible accompaniment to the raw fish taste.
Appetites suitably whetted, we turned our attention to the business of the main course which we were to sit down to in the restaurant. By this stage the bar area was beginning to throb with an assembling glamorous clientele who had materialized, as if by transporter, to create the atmosphere of a nightclub.
To drink I chose an Albarinho, that washed through my palate like the invigorating crash of a Galician wave, before, I might add, the Prestige sullied those waters. For mains I went for a monkfish with olive crust and my colleague chose the ox tail, a popular choice, it seems.
I found my monkfish a little austere, perhaps over-cooked, but the scholar was enraptured by his choice which he pronounced ‘Special’; and indeed a taste confirmed that this under-utilised cut had been cooked to smooth perfection.
For dessert I chose a yoghurt ice cream with apple which appealed to my preference for desserts of a refreshing type, which leads rather too often to lemon sorbet, but here I found a sweet with a bite not burdensome on the constitution.
Predictably, my accomplice, in line with a policy of gargantua so favoured by the Ancients, chose the indulgent ‘chocolate chocolate chocolate’ which ceased his digression on the venerable Bede, for a few minutes at least, while he devoured it to the last morsel.
Overall we emerged, or descended, very happy and amused by our encounter. This is dining but not as we know it, a swashbuckling establishment in the heart of the metropolis with views over planet earth.