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Lunch at Aquarella -- fancy schmancy Mexican in SD

Jim Strain | Mar 20, 200302:12 PM

I'd been wanting to try this place since I saw their ad in the December issue of San Diego Magazine, which mentioned that it was owned by the same folks who run Trattoria Acqua in La Jolla. When I called to inquire, I was told that they wouldn't open for several more weeks, but to please check back. Next time I saw it mentioned (I forget where), the review made it sound like it was very hip, very high-toned, and filled with beautiful people who all carried platinum AmEx cards. Not exactly a Chowhound candidate.

This month's San Diego Magazine (March) has a review by David Nelson who waxed poetic over the sophisticated Mexico City style Mexican cuisine, but cautioned that a dinner for two at Aquarella would easily set back your credit card balance by $100. Anyway, an opportunity unexpectedly arose to have a leisurely lunch, so at Di's suggestion, we jumped in the car and headed for the Aventine (Aquarella occupies the space that most recently housed Palomino). Not least important in our decision was the hope that lunch wouldn't be as much of a budget buster.

The place is beautiful (muy Mexicano!) with bright colors and lots of little touches like the handicraft type wooden bud vases on every table that made me feel I was back at Ampelios J in Guadalajara. The place was doing a good business, but far from crowded. The lunch menu wasn't skimpy, but it did lack a lot of the interesting appetizer and meal selections that were mentioned in the San Diego article. There were a lot of familiar Mexican favorites, but most seemed to have some special twist that made it clear that whoever was running things in the kitchen had ambitions beyond anything you'd likely encounter in Old Town. And (Bingo!) the prices were more than fair for a place that has to pay Aventine rent.

We each ordered a glass of that day's Sauvignon Blanc (sorry, I didn't think to note the label), not cheap at $6.50, but it wasn't a wine I'd seen at Von's. The waiter brought glasses and our wine arrived in two separate little carafes that (forgive me) reminded me of something that might have been ordered from a hospital supply catalog. There must be a word for "excessively fastidious". But all was forgiven when they also set down a basket of warm tortilla chips with a jarrita of freshly made salsa.

For openers (after eating too many chips), I ordered a bowl of black bean soup ($6.95) and Diana got a salad. The soup was light and flavorful with just enough pulp to remind you of its source, and a tiny dollop of sour cream infused with epazote floated in the center of the bowl. Most of my life's best soup experiences have come either in Mexico or at places where Mexican hands were involved in their creation. The Aquarella black bean soup was one of these -- superb. It was like eating the very essence of the black bean -- and it was perfectly spiced (picante en punto) -- hot without overpowering the complex flavor of the soup. Di's deceptively named Aquarella House salad ($7.95) was no bowl of iceberg. Rather it was mostly baby spinach tossed with pecans and generous crumbles of an excellent bleu cheese, surrounded by lightly spiced pears, and finished with a raspberry vinaigrette. After letting me taste it, she's lucky I gave her back her fork.

For our main course, I had a chile relleno -- stuffed with crab ($10.95). A large chile poblano, stuffed and delicately breaded arrives on a bed of rice cooked in the Spanish style. This is NOT Spanish rice, but rather a lightly flavored, yellow-tinged rice that served as a nice complement to the star of the show. The chile was a beautiful specimen, and the marriage of the crab and chile flavors worked much better than I would have guessed. This was far different from the traditional norteno style chile relleno which I love so much and which, when really well done is probably my favorite Mexican dish. As soon as I saw Aquarella's version, I simply put out of my mind any thought of comparisons and just enjoyed it for itself -- and enjoy it I did.

Di had the Carnitas Yucatan ($12.95) which appeared to be made from primo-quality pork shoulder. It was fat (in a good way) on the inside, crispy at the edges, and bursting with flavor. The accompaniments were of a quality you'd expect and the portion was worthy of the dish. The tortillas that came with it were quite different. They were yellow -- almost orange in color, and smooth -- as if made from a finely milled flour rather than the traditional coarsely ground meal. They were very good, but another case of something that had to be evaluated on its own, rather than against something that came out of your abuelita's cocina. Take it all around, it was a very yumbola lunch. Our total, exclusive of tip, was $55.81 -- or would have been if we hadn't ordered a second glass of wine each.

At lunchtime, there's free parking at the Aventine restaurant garage, but I noticed that after 4 p.m., all their parking spaces are belong to the valet. Still, we liked it well enough that we might just make it our next special-occasion dinner destination. Bon appetit!

Gawd! That phrase in connection with Aquarella just reminded me: Many years ago, the boss approached a bunch of us Dilbert types at the water cooler and asked if any of us knew of a Mexican Restaurant in Rancho Santa Fe. A young engineer from the Netherlands replied, "Rancho Santa Fe? If there were a Mexican restaurant there it would probably be called Cafe Mexicaine." So, Buen Provecho!

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