Restaurant Review: Aqua Terra solid, but not current

Annapolis restaurant sometimes feels bound to its 2000 roots

July 16, 2011|By Richard Gorelick, The Baltimore Sun

Dust off that old pashmina, we're going to Aqua Terra.

Aqua Terra, when it opened in 2000, was something of an anomaly in Annapolis. Especially on quaint Main Street, it felt like a darker and bluesier take on the open-kitchen restaurant that was showing up everywhere. Today's Aqua Terra combines elements like the curving glass-block entrance wall, a fedora-clad kitchen staff and softly playing jazz to evoke another era — the 1920s maybe, or the 1810s … it's hard to tell — but most people would guess, within a year or two, that Aqua Terra opened in 2000.

As other, newer contemporary restaurants have popped up in the neighborhood, Aqua Terra has started to look just a tiny bit off, as though it was still wearing its hair in a "Rachel." It looks cared for and loved, and even on a blisteringly hot night, when passers-by on Main Street seem to be passing Aqua Terra by, there are still good vibes inside. New diners receive a warm greeting here and are served conscientiously and sweetly, by a woman who, we learned later, is one of the restaurant's co-owners.

It could be that Aqua Terra's dated looks got my antennae up, because its cuisine ended up coming across that way to me, too. Tastes change.

There's nothing crazily off about Aqua Terra's menu of Asian-influenced small plates, but neither is there anything compelling nowadays about Kobe beef sliders, tuna tartare and pulled duck potstickers, items that have become commonplace on the menus of corner taverns and even some of the old-fogey places on Main Street. This puts Aqua Terra, which is a pricey place, in the position of having to make these things more delicious, or more beautiful, or more something than all of the other places doing the same thing. It does so only sometimes.

It does with a shimmeringly pretty tuna tartare appetizer, because the dots and squiggles of accompanying sauces — a sesame soy, a wasabi mayo, a mango wasabi and a unagi sauce — taste not only homemade but also like fresh ideas. I can't say it made me think of tuna tartare in a different way, but it made a strong statement about Aqua Terra's vision and potential.

As did a Thai-style crispy whole rockfish, which is intended as a show-stopper and is one. Plated with freshly stir-fried snow peas and chopped bok choy, the fish, curved mouth-to-fin, nestles around a half-moon of bone-white sticky rice. In terms of drama, it's just the item for diners who enjoy experiencing things they can't make for themselves at home. Beneath the crispy skin there is ample fresh and firm, not quite succulent, subtly flavored meat.

But there's nothing about a spicy tuna roll, from a list of Aqua Terra's sushi specialties, or an appetizer of potstickers stuffed with crab meat and habenero Monterey Jack, but not any habenero heat, that will make you remember them a minute after you eat them. Ditto the Kobe beef sliders, which are served with caramelized onions, bacon and a blue-cheese cabernet dressing that seem tired and even a little gratuitous — why would you need any of those things with great Kobe beef? And the same goes for the not-very-meaty or robust New Zealand lamb chops, which are coated with an Asian barbecue sauce that makes you doubt their provenance.

These were just disappointments, and in fairness, they might have gotten a pass at a corner tavern. I can tell you the exact moment I stopped rooting for Aqua Terra, though. It happened on the innocuous little salad mix that came with the potstickers — the greens were topped with those waxy, pale and flavorless tomatoes that have no business being served in Maryland in July.

That's when I started finding fault, and it's when I started thinking about the prices at Aqua Terra, like the $12.50 we spent for martinis and manhattans, which is what you'd willingly pay in a place that didn't serve you lame tomatoes but not in one that does.

I basically lost a little faith. A lovely New York strip ends up tasting flavorless, as though it hadn't been seasoned before it was grilled. And a buttery scallops entree gets scrutinized for the wobbly preparation of its scallops and the absence of shrimp instead of admired for its satisfying richness.

I never did get a firm grasp of what Aqua Terra is. Expectations were raised, by a crisp and compact wine list or the basket of warm naan brought to the table, and then deflated, by food that didn't hit its mark often enough. This carried through to the end, with a dessert course consisting of delicious Filipino-style fried bananas served with vanilla ice cream and caramel sauce, and a flaccid vanilla creme brulee.

Aqua Terra

Where: 164 Main St., Annapolis

Contact: 410.263.1985,

Hours: Open for dinner Tuesday through Sunday

Prices: Appetizers, $7.50-$12.50-$ Entrees, $23-$29

Food: ✭✭1/2

Service: ✭✭✭

Atmosphere: ✭✭1/2

[Key: Outstanding: ✭✭✭✭; Good:✭✭✭; Fair or Uneven:✭✭; Poor:✭]

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