Sunday, March 11, 2012

Aqua- New and Refreshing on Naples' Fifth Avenue South

Aqua, is upscale and casually elegant; a refreshing restaurant oasis. It’s the newest face on NaplesFifth Avenue South, the street formerly known as "the" Naples dining destination. Sadly, in the past few years, it has spawned more inexpensive pizza parlors than finer dining. Aqua’s presence, nicely populated with diners, is a sign of a welcome change- a recovering economy. Sure, there’s always a market for $3 pizza slices, and I’m happy to nosh on a hot slice. Problem is, pizza joints are not the attraction that Fifth Avenue merchants need to woo back vacationing families and well-heeled diners from more lively and alluring venues as the dynamic dozen restaurants at Mercato or half dozen along Third Street South.

Aqua is open and welcoming, presenting a good vista of Fifth Avenue South pedestrian life. It’s nicely air conditioned inside-hardly needed in “season.” While casual enough for family dinners with well behaved kids, it’s quite suitable to wow the boss and entertain friends or in-laws.
The décor of the former Cork’s Steakhouse, then Bert’s Seafood & Chowder House is quite aqua- from bright exterior to the furthest recess. This signature pastel is offset by attractive rough-hewn sand-colored marble columns and rectangular-cut stone floor.
 The long bar seats twenty people comfortably, and is well staffed by friendly bartenders. Corks’ private dining room/wine room remains, a great spot for a business meeting or private party.
     Although it’s been open just a month or so, Aqua has hit its stride. Kudo’s to co-owner Mr. G! Our phone reservations were efficiently taken. We were promptly greeted and seated by host Angelo.  Our server brought linen-wrapped freshly sliced warm bread and a delicious herb and olive oil dip, bold with fresh garlic. “Someone pays attention to details,” my restaurant-wise dining partners exclaimed, “They could have gotten by with less intense and less expensive dried herbs like other spots. I can’t stop from having a few more slices slathered with this delicous dip!”    
From around 6:30 pm till 8:30, a lovely violin-celtic harp duo played various selections, occasionally going table to table. Nicely done!

 Our oft-asked  “What are the best things on the menu” was met with “Tell me what do you like-seafood, steaks, and do you have any dietary restrictions?”  Yes, good answer!  One companion did have unique requirements. The server and kitchen came through nicely on her resulting salmon order, and in helping us to target our choices.
 I am a fan of pork belly, only when it’s cooked with love.  It’s superb when cooked properly, and greasy bacon when it’s not. Aqua’s $12 pork belly is one of the best I’ve had cooked by any chef across the USA. It’s an elegantly simple presentation.  Three handsomely cut towers of porcine goodness, like a trio of sedimentary rocks or chiseled stalagmites, offer thick layers of  tender pork alternating with thin layers of flavorful fat.
They are attractively plated on a long narrow white plate, atop a reduced rivulet of  glazed honey based Asian-style BBQ sauce.
 Chef Sandro Durante also uses passion fruit, mustard and figs for the sauce. And the pork belly? Simple to duplicate-just set aside four days to herb-brine it, then braise, compress, and finally sear it to give its top layer such a crisp goodness. Juicy, meaty succulent and crisp, accented with subtle yet complex flavored sauce-it sets the standard for SW Florida. Highly recommended!
The $12 roasted beet salad is large- a meal for some, with ample just-tender beet morsels atop bright green mâche (lamb’s lettuce) salad, with a light blood orange vincotto gastrique dressing. A sprinkling of goat cheese tops it off. Recommended.

We were very happy with our choice of a bottle of the crisp, balanced house Chardonnay, to accompany our seafood oriented dinners. Beers are $4-5. Martinis are $11-Most whiskey, bourbon and cognac are priced from $12 to $15-not out of line for Fifth Avenue.
The $30 pan-braised corvina arrived warm and properly cooked in a large white bowl, however the tasty white wine truffle sauce appeared to be “broken.” Not a problem-we thoroughly enjoyed it, and would order it again. It is topped with sprigs of broccolini.  One can additionally order a side dish or two-we were more than well fed and pleased with our portions.

Pan roasted salmon ($32) is thick,  juicy and comes nicely seared and cooked to just before the point of easily flaking- once it “easily flakes” it’s overdone by current fish-lovers’ standards. The honey pepper glaze is quite popular.

Our favorite of the fish entrees is the miso-glazed $38 Chilean sea bass, a colorful, attractively plated, very generous  hunk of perfectly cooked fish that you can cut with a glance, yet has a bit of seared crust.
Bedecked with sautéd spinach and Yukon gold potato puree,   “It’s food porn at its finest,” my companion said with awe. The Asian-style glaze has a hint of heat. This is a keeper! Highly Recommended.
There’s sides available for those with big appetites- we made quick work of the  oh –so- creamy  mashed, er pureed,  Yukon gold potatoes.

Other dinner faves are the $14 lobster and shrimp salad, whole  dover sole or bronzino -market priced; $30 pork osso buco, and filet mignon (5 oz-$29, and 10 oz.- $42). Do check out the separate lunch menu.

Leave room for dessert! The unique pineapple sorbet is cradled in a small pineapple half. It uses pure pineapple, and is subtle, not sugary sweet. It’s light, refreshing and recommended.
Tableside prepared bananas Foster is well worth the show, with a touch of  Kahlua for good measure. Get your camera ready, without flash, for a photo of the blue flame dancing above the skillet!
This dessert nicely serves three people. This classic is highly recommended for the taste and show alike. The panna cotta is recommended, too.
Mr G, take a bow, for bringing a well crafted restaurant to Fifth Avenue South!

862 Fifth Avenue South, Naples , 213-1111,

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