There's this great throwaway line from one of the old "Wayne's World" sketches on Saturday Night Live in which Wayne ponders possible etymologies for the word pesci, as in Joe Pesci's last name. "It's, like, I'm feeling a bit pesci today," he muses, "like, I may or may not want some fish."
Truly pesci St. Louisans now have an establishment where they can indulge such ambivalent seafood tendencies. For Aqua Vin, which recently replaced Crazy Fish out at Chesterfield Mall, isn't really a seafood restaurant; it's more a seafood restaurant for people who are embarrassed to admit that they don't really love seafood.
It is wholly possible to carve out an entire meal from Aqua Vin's menu -- which is so overstuffed with options it's like a cafeteria spread -- without once coming within five feet of fishy flesh. Under the entrées are six cuts of beef, two pork dishes and some lamb chops, but only five dishes are built around an actual fillet of fish. There are spare ribs and Buffalo wings and five kinds of pizza (none with anchovies), and for lunch and takeout there are also burgers and omelets. In fact, the heaviest nautical motifs aren't found in the food but in the relentlessly turquoise décor, screaming, This is a seafood restaurant, dammit! These people are very sophisticated, and they love seafood!
Given St. Louis' locale (landlocked, deep in the heartland/cow country), of course we're not the savviest seafood eaters, and people are allowed to order pulled pork and lemon chicken as much as they want, even at an ostensible fish joint. What's disappointing is that the kitchen at Aqua Vin sometimes seems no more fluent in seafood than its own clientele. Too often here, perfectly good fish is overmatched by sauces and sides that show no respect for fish's innately delicate taste. (This is probably a good time to mention that the cover of the Aqua Vin menu features the catchphrase "food without boundaries." It's a bit curious, and after eating there I can only conclude that the slogan is somehow supposed to give chef Dave Rook license to take advantage of his ingredients way too much.)
Crab cakes are important. Everybody loves crab cakes, and though their presence on a seafood menu is a gimme, they've got to be gangbusters, a real crowd-pleaser. But the chipotle mayonnaise dolloped atop the Maryland blue crab cakes appetizer here hits you chipotle-first, annihilating the sweet crabmeat beneath it -- and whatever you may put in your mouth next. (There's a reason tartar sauce exists, you know.) Likewise, the charred sea scallops (not fully charred but still plump and fantastic) haven't the gumption to compete with jalapeño potato cakes and roasted-pepper aioli and shouldn't be asked to. The kitchen does get things gloriously right with the charred rare yellowfin tuna, perhaps the only appetizer and certainly the only serving of tuna I've ever had that made me say, "Oh, hell yes." The wasabi and the Szechuan ginger-soy sauce are on the side, blessedly; the accompanying Oriental vegetable rice noodle salad, a sort of vinegar coleslaw/fresh salsa/noodle concoction, worked with the tuna fabulously, so good in and of itself the diner could order it as its own starter if it was offered.
The best portion of the menu is the salads -- and the most accomplished salad is the calamari. It sounds like a bar-food addict's laughable attempt at healthfulness, but the breaded and flash-fried squid are entirely greaseless and paired well with chopped egg and lemon dressing. The Hang Town Fry -- a long-lost bit of American-cooking folklore, a salad of sorts that came about during the California gold rush -- is equally inspired, mixing bacon, egg, fried potato shavings, onions and fried oysters. Things turn decidedly less rousing with the entrées. The steaks and pastas are serviceable, if proffered in somewhat workmanlike fashion: a juicy ribeye with roasted mushrooms, caramelized onion and Yukon Gold potatoes (though I swear I remember it being served with garlic mashed potatoes instead); a seafood linguine with spinach and tomatoes; a grilled-vegetable lasagna.
Not enough can be said about the salmon entrée -- and not in a good way. Salmon is a forgiving fish and can withstand a lot of abuse, but what Aqua Vin does to its salmon is downright inexcusable. It is slathered in honey mustard with red chile. It comes to the table so brown in sauce that it could pass for ribs, so over-the-top pungent that my dining partner, sitting next to me, got hit in the nose by it. The salmon fillet (which is rather thin and overdone) comes atop hoppin' John, another odd bit of Continental cuisine -- rice, black-eyed peas and smoked pork, said to have originated among African slaves on Southern plantations. Hoppin' John is none too subtle in its own right, and it's all just too much for the poor piece of salmon. (And I laughed to see that sitting next to all this ado on my plate were a simple broccoli spear and small pile of carrots.) The one special entrée we ordered -- sesame-encrusted ahi tuna with beef ravioli -- was equally ambitious. But who eats a full-sized serving of Asian-prepared ahi right alongside a full-sized serving of beef ravioli? Each of these dishes should be presented as the walleye is, sans sauce, with only a side of jambalaya necessary to complement its simple, clean taste. This is fish, not a circus. Less is more. If you want to do more, you should do a burger or a pizza or an ice-cream sundae.
There is one standout reason to trek to Aqua Vin tonight, and that's the Alaskan king crab legs. They are the size of a child's arm, boiled to perfection and served, classically, with red potatoes, lemon, butter and nothing else. If you've never eaten a massive crustacean, it's an experience you owe yourself, and you can have it with Aqua Vin's crab legs just as well as you can at virtually any seafood restaurant on either coast.
Going back to that whole "food without boundaries" concept, how did pastry chef Kathryn Kennealy veer so far off course in designing Aqua Vin's dessert menu? So much of it is temptingly worded and undeniably delicious (I mean, come on, it's dessert), but not what it claims to be. If you want to buck tradition and make an "all-chocolate" tiramisu, fine, but this offering really is a cake-and-mousse parfait cupped in a chocolate shell -- nary a ladyfinger in sight, and the cake is not soaked in alcohol. The bananas Foster trifle is not bananas Foster, an old New Orleans dessert of sliced bananas sautéed with brown sugar and rum and served warm with vanilla ice cream. This is a banana-cream layer cake garnished with a couple of stubs of glazed bananas. The pumpkin-brioche bread pudding is a slightly moist pumpkin-bread muffin. The apple dumpling filled with Camembert, macerated figs and walnut praline outright lacked Camembert.
Despite all these criticisms, a night at Aqua Vin certainly qualifies as a fine-dining excursion. (The prices alone dictate that.) Yet on one of two visits, the dessert course was presented before new utensils were placed and while leftover sharing plates from the main course were still on the table. There was also a forgotten entrée order, plus a drinking straw that merited three requests before it was brought to the table on a slow Monday night. When you're paying this much for dinner, such service shortcomings are as unforgivable as the fate that befalls the unsuspecting salmon -- and may be the deciding factor in determining just how pesci a mood you're in.