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July 01, 2004
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FOOD FOR THOUGHT: Aqua vs Aqua

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Maybe it's the cool ocean breezes, the steep hills or all the sightseeing, but hanging out in San Francisco always gives me an appetite. Of course having dozens of great neighborhood restaurants-the kind of moderately priced, locally run, establishments that we lack, doesn't hurt either. And I could wax poetic about my meal at Aqua, AND all the cool food stalls in the newly renovated Ferry Building ..... So I think I will.....

Imagine a beautiful old building, a visual treat in its own right, housing everything from gelato makers to bread bakers, a fish and meat market, greengrocers, and the Cowgirl Creamery (the best cheese store I've seen outside New York).... And lest you think this retail food extravaganza is the exclusive province of pretentious foodies; I saw families of all sizes and persuasions loading up on all of it...although it takes a certain perversity to spend an entire afternoon overlooking the Bay, sipping one great wine after another (some of which were even Californian), while shuffling from cheese store to boulangerie, french rotisserie to nouveau Vietnamese, and sushi bar to chocolatier, all to get a taste of everything. And I bet you don't know WHO I'm referring to.....

What made my afternoon of gluttony all the more amazing was that it occurred right after lunch...at the original Aqua no less. In the spirit of my gourmet challenge---you remember: the one where I said all of our celebrity joints are just chefs cashing in with their retreads....I decided to put my dinero where my pie hole is, and see for myself.

I wanted to judge if, after two recent dinners at Aqua in the Bellagio, the mothership was, in fact, better. At the Vegas Aqua, I dined from a menu that has hardly changed since I first ate there five years ago. Was the tuna tartare good...yeah...but it wasn't great. And that Forty Six dollar dover sole was big enough to feed three, and boring enough to be a steakhouse special. The proscuitto wrapped halibut tasted of turf not surf, and where the truffles in the spuds were, I'll never know.

In San Fran, at the original Aqua, chef Laurent Manrique, to put it mild-lay, blew me away with Alaskan black cod swimming in an intense fish reduction, a trio of foie gras that was like swabbing your arteries with fat-In a good way of course--, and melt-in-your-mouth smoked salmon that shamed the same old same old version we get down here. Does it hurt me to say these things? You betcha, but at the stratospheric prices charged at the Bellagio they oughta be doing more than going through the motions. After two dinners there in two weeks, I doubt I'll return for another five years, and after lunch at the original Aqua, I was so inspired that I just had to keep on eatin'.

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