Monday, 27 September 2010
Aqua Nueva, Regent Street
I remember, a few years ago now, going to a friend's birthday party at a place called The Collection in Knightsbridge. I was earning about £16k a year at the time and needed a great deal of persuading that what looked suspiciously like an over-designed, Movida-set poseurs hangout was really worth a healthy chunk of my weekly wage. It wasn't. A ludicrously overblown glass walkway led into a cavernous, deafening warehouse filled with the kind of people I would ordinarily cross the street to avoid, with a vast bar area downstairs and upstairs a significantly smaller, in size and attention lavished, "pan-Asian" restaurant. I think I had some sort of dull onion tart for starter, a leg of duck in a vaguely Chinese-y dressing for main, and a couple of cocktails, and left £85 worse off, never to return. In case you were wondering, no I didn't sit there moaning about the place all evening and risk ruining someone else's birthday. I just waited 6 years until I had a blog, and then slagged it off. I do have some self-control.
The point is, ever since The Collection (what an awful name too) I have held a deep mistrust of anywhere it seems people go to see and be seen, rather than enjoy good food and drink. Fortunately, there aren't too many - or maybe I just avoid them, or avoid the people who are likely to want to go to them - but I just think there's something awfully depressing about a restaurant aiming for "exclusivity" or "wow factor" at the expense of decent grub. And once I had negotiated the red velvet reception, the handsome black-clad staff with Bluetooth earpieces checking The List, the lift to the fifth floor, yet more staff, a long, dark corridor decorated with a huge bull's head, and finally the restaurant itself at Aqua Nueva, I was sure this was going to be one of those places - all mouth and no pantalones.
But then, the food arrived. And very nice it was too. Iberico ham was top quality and carved expertly into wafer-thin slices of just the right size. It didn't really need the tomato bread accompaniment but then perhaps they felt people would expect more than a plate of ham for £18. They shouldn't, of course; this stuff is expensive for a very good reason - it's bloody good - but that's people for you.
A broad bean, white asparagus and pepper tart could have just been a token vegetarian option but was genuinely nice, presented well and with an incredibly tasty (presumably) broad bean mash as well as some whole broad beans. The asparagus was a bit squishy perhaps but these were preserved, and you have to give them marks for not flying in (*chokes on CO2*) Peruvian veg at this time of year.
And last of the "tapas" (they may as well just call them starters, they're too big and fancy for tapas anyway) was some morcilla, over-elaborate presentation but nonetheless rich and piggy and served on roasted peppers and toasted bread. So far, so good.
I always think pork belly is a good measure of a kitchen's ability. It's so difficult to get this cut of meat right; when it's good, it's world-class, and when it's bad it's like chewing your way through leather dipped in pig fat. I'm afraid this was more akin to the latter than the former. The skin was slightly crispy, but not very; it could have done with a bit more rendering perhaps. And the flesh itself was dry, really not showcasing very well what should have been a lovely tender slice of suckling pig. Veg were fine but the sauce was overly sharp, and it all just didn't sit well together. A shame. A friend's lamb shoulder was better, if still suffering slightly from a tendency towards dryness, although a mashed potato side was excellent and went some way to make up for it.
Confused by the use of the word 'tapas' to describe the starters (how anyone was realistically supposed to "share" that asparagus tart, for example, is a mystery to me), we had over-ordered on savoury courses and so had to skip dessert, but I still didn't feel, despite the relatively disappointing mains, that we had suffered a bad meal. The worst I can say about Aqua Nueva is that its priorities aren't quite in alignment with my own, but there must be room in London for a bit of sparkle and razzmatazz, as long as the food isn't a complete disaster zone. It's a bit pricey, it's a bit superficial, and it's a bit showy, but the Movida-set hanging around on the rooftop terrace seemed to be enjoying themselves, and I'm sure many of them had a perfectly decent meal once they'd finished their Bollinger and moved inside. And good luck to them. As for this terminally untrendy food blogger, I think you're more likely to find me in Brindisa or Camino or Iberica, knocking back Tio Pepe in jeans and a T-shirt. Perhaps it's an insecurity thing.
I was invited to review Aqua Nueva.