El Gaucho's Reel Problem

The spendy steakhouse's waterfront spin-off reanimates a deadly cuisine.

The spatted gentlemen and bob-haired ladies leading the current classic cocktail revival don't like flavored vodka or frozen-drink machines. They prefer whiskey, vintage glassware, and Bols Genever, and have painstakingly created bars so faithful to a brief moment in American booze history that it feels entirely fitting to debate the viability of the Panama Canal while sipping on egg milk punches. Such grog piety might seem silly to drinkers who'd just as soon have a Miller Lite, but really, what's the harm?

Aqua by El Gaucho, the rebranded Waterfront Seafood Grill that emerged this fall after the 11-year-old restaurant took a short sabbatical to re-emphasize its corporate connection with the extravagant downtown steakhouse, is resurrecting a potentially more vexing American tradition: the unapologetically retrograde seafood house, specializing in the plate-sized fish that impressed diners a generation ago but that sustainable seafood activists would now rather you didn't eat. Nostalgia, it appears, isn't always innocuous.

The restaurant's musty aesthetics are apparent just inside the entryway, fronted by a pair of padded seafoam-green vinyl doors. From this spot, it's possible to take in the whole of Aqua's dimly lit, cruise ship–like interior, flourished with an undulating bar that seats 30. The soundtrack for the sweep is "Beat It," or "My Way," or whatever else the pianist feels like tinkling, although he's frequently forced to interrupt his repertoire for another round of "Happy Birthday."

The plum seating is along the restaurant's southern edge, which abuts the waterfront. After sunset, the windows don't do much for diners seated in the vast middle of the room, who have to content themselves with looking at their menus instead of at ferryboats skimming across the Sound.

That menu, which name-checks more countries than a speaker at a G-20 summit, presents a morass of dilemmas for the scrupulous diner. Decades ago, when only marine biologists were conversant in overfishing and bycatch, a spendy seafood dinner featuring West African prawns, Mexican shrimp, Chilean sea bass, and Russian crab was a benign status symbol, like a cigarette holder or a mink stole. Now it's more likely to make eaters wish they'd downloaded the latest Seafood Watch app to their smartphones.

To be fair, Aqua isn't serving whale. The restaurant is hardly hell-bent on destroying the world's oceans: The salmon is wild-caught in Puget Sound's Rosario Strait, the halibut hails from Alaska, and the sea bass is certified by the Marine Stewardship Council. "We pay a very high price to be able to serve it in good conscience," restaurant spokeswoman Molly Schachter says of the fish, one of a half-dozen original menu items restored with the rebranding. But at these prices—Aqua charges $79 for a set of Maine lobster tails—it's frustrating to encounter highly selective sourcing information, which stymies a diner's attempts to eat responsibly.

"Crispy whole fish with marvelous sauce," a Waterfront favorite back for an encore, is a black sea bass preparation, although the menu doesn't say so. Nor does the menu indicate that the New England fish is trawl-caught— a destructive harvesting method that Geoff Shester of Oceana, an advocacy organization, likens to running a bulldozer over the sea floor. The menu pinpoints the provenance of its prawns as the Sea of Cortez, but doesn't reveal whether the critters are caught using a bottom-trawler—an inadvertent nemesis of centuries-old coral reefs—or a gill net, which threatens the endangered vaquita porpoise.

"I tell ocean-conscious consumers to avoid wild shrimp altogether," says Shester, who previously served as senior science manager of the Seafood Watch program at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. "The problem with seafood is you literally have thousands of choices," he continues. "There aren't that many types of zucchini that matter. Asking even educated consumers, much less the masses, to make these decisions is really asking too much."

If Shester had his druthers, every restaurant would identify where its seafood originated and how it was procured. He thinks self-styled seafood cathedrals will one day derive their glitz not from plump scallops and butter-soaked lobster claws, but from cosmopolitan menus propped up by compelling "sustainability stories." That's not yet the template for Aqua—or most other restaurants serving ocean creatures.


So why single out Aqua, which doesn't proclaim any environmentalist ambitions? Maybe because it feels halfway vulgar to order vaguely sourced "seafood indulgence" and "seafood bacchanalia" platters while seated just a few fathoms from a body of water that's been devastated by human nonchalance.

Or perhaps it's inordinately easy to maintain a moralistic stance when the payoff for neglecting sustainability standards is so slight: The food at Aqua is awful.

The server on our first visit was fond of a beef-tenderloin appetizer that seemed very much like something that might appear on a cafeteria line the day after steak night: tough, chewy bits of meat submerged in a viscous cream sauce made amber by paprika and peppers. Since the dish is almost all sauce and no cattle, it's served with two hunks of slick Texas toast, ostentatiously branded with grill marks. Still, the bread was better than the lifeless fingers of oily foccacia that inhabit the restaurant's complimentary bread basket.

For eaters eager to get the seafood show started, Aqua offers the same presentation, starring shrimp of unspecified derivation. The remainder of the appetizer menu includes a shrimp cocktail, bacon-wrapped shrimp, tuna tempura, unpleasantly mealy crab cakes, and fried calamari, oddly flavorless and dripping with grease.

There should be anchovies on the Caesar salad, since Aqua's in the fish business, but the romaine's topped only by croutons and grated cheese. The anchovies are apparently mixed into the very citric dressing, which the kitchen isn't shy about applying.

A spicy crab bisque was badly out of whack the night I tried it: Generous splashes of scotch and sherry couldn't undo the time the soup had spent overheating in its pot, serving only to strengthen the jab of acrid smoke. The bisque tasted like burnt rubber.

Dishes that require less mussing aren't much better. The two-person bacchanalia is a veritable diorama of marine life, gleaming with lemon-butter sauce. Crab legs, scallops, shrimp, a wedge of salmon, and a steamed lobster tail surround a clutch of asparagus and a mound of mashed potatoes, which ought to make for a fun evening. But the crab was as dry as paper toweling and the salmon as firm as a paperback book. Only the scallops were passable.


If you're stuck with an Aqua gift certificate, then, what should you eat? Maybe the whole crispy fish, curled in on itself. Its white flesh is clean-tasting and the enveloping fry is admirably subtle. I'm guessing my server wouldn't have chosen it. "I see you've met your friend," she said, skeptically assessing the beady-eyed sea bass upon arriving at our table a few beats after the entrées.

Service is consistently lackluster at Aqua. None of my servers could speak knowledgeably about the menu, nor did they bother with basic restaurant courtesies such as alerting my table when our plates were scalding hot. As a former server, I typically scoff at the "plates are hot" warning. But at Aqua, I could only assume these plates were run through the dishwasher, held under a heat lamp, and then warmed in the oven. They didn't belong within reach of anyone with bare hands.

On another quiet weeknight, when a server finally returned with our drinks to discover we'd closed our menus and slid them aside, she didn't offer to take our orders. Instead, she disappeared for another 15 minutes. While I understand managers are apt to burden servers with too much side work on nights when few tables are taken, a $40-entrée kind of restaurant needs to do better. There are people here celebrating birthdays, folks. They deserve regal treatment.

Celebrants of any stripe would do well to order the baked Alaska, a spot-on rendition of the traditional flaming dessert. Goofily opulent, the classic preparation is an oldfangled culinary practice worthy of revival. The same can't be said of menus which force diners to choose willy-nilly between sea bass trawled here and tuna hooked there. Capricious sourcing and careless cooking are habits best consigned to culinary history.

Price Guide

Tenderloin diablo $16

Crab bisque $12

Seafood bacchanalia for two $136

Whole crispy fish $42

Baked Alaska $20


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