After a dramatic and abrupt closing in its original location in Chienmen 23, Agua is open for business in a new home on the fourth floor of Nali Patio.
Banquettes line the back wall, and roomy tables and plush velvet chairs occupy a spacious dining room that is elegantly lit. Tables are spaced just far enough apart to eavesdrop on your neighbours if you wish. The chef’s menu is a four-course bargain and an excellent way to experience the food for around 300RMB, but a la carte tapas are tempting competition.
When a small iron pot full of house-made chorizo sizzling in a pool of hot red oil with tiny croutons is set down before you, you’ll smile. A plate of smoked Japanese mackerel is overly generous with a tomato concassé that’s a mystery at first, because tomatoes are so out of season. The fish is well-textured and balanced but smoked so lightly that much of the smoky flavour is lost against a series of strong components that include a dry foam cloud that is unnecessary and adds nothing to the dish.
Something titled ‘Lacón a la Gallega’ is a steamed Spanish pork leg with spicy and smoked paprika oil that reads irresistibly on paper. A plate of very good, expensive ham with a sweet-smoky peppery orange oil arrives and is a visual letdown. It’s a little too taverna and not enough red velvet for this type of establishment.
The ravioli of veal and porcini are painstakingly handmade, beautiful pillows of saffron-coloured pasta with a delicate bite that drown in a cloying lake of cream and mushrooms where a brown butter or sharp oil might have done just the trick.
The suckling pig seems to be trotting all over the dining room and is clearly the crowd favourite. It’s available in various portion sizes. Valles executes a perfectly golden leg quarter set alongside a creamy apricot purée that’s sprinkled with a sprightly garnish of tiny squash blossoms and chrysanthemum petals. A drizzle of jus is the ultimate accompaniment paired with crisp skin and melting fatty meat that is so tender, you will regret you had any starters.
The enticing selection of fish makes choosing your main course difficult. The sea bream is seared and served with an abstract version of refrito, a Latin flavour foundation sometimes called soffrito, made from onions and garlic with spices balanced with vinegar. A heavy hand of salt killed the fillet and so we scraped under the skin to reveal some pucks of sweet pumpkin confit treasures. Because we were so full, sending the fish back seemed unnecessary and not one server seemed to notice or care that an almost-entirely untouched main course went back to the kitchen.
Valles is considerate enough to include two vegetarian main courses that read like side dishes. But go easy when you order because portions aren’t small.
The most unusual-sounding dessert could be the Galician crêpes with a lemon custard and yoghurt filling. The plate looks simple and elegant but the crêpes are tough and starchy and don’t fare well with the tart yoghurt combination. Disappointed, we try another bite and give up.
Finish and mingle a little bit, but don’t think of lingering over coffee or you might be asked to leave by the manager, as we were, in order to free the table. It’s enough to ruin the evening. The food is delicious and well-presented, and Agua is clearly trying its hand at fine dining but needs to be careful of trippy service and an overall lack of care in the dining room. All these details undermine what should be a special dining experience, particularly compromising the excellent food that Valles lovingly prepares. Agua is still very new and, when it gets service kinks out of the knot, it’s sure to be a destination of deliciousness.
By Lillian Chou