At Aqua Restaurant on Blackburn Point Road in Osprey, it’s all about the beautifully conceived and superbly executed dishes ferried to table from chef Matthew Passalacqua’s kitchen by a well-schooled staﬀ of pros. A seat by the west or north windows in the third-ﬂoor dining room yields nice views of a marina and Sarasota Bay beyond, but it’s the food that will really charm you.
True, the decor is a bit of a muddle and the front desk can be dithery, but this young restaurant easily rises above such minor quibbles. Everything we tasted, from the artisanal breads that preceded appetizers to espresso after dessert, was an unalloyed delight.
Maybe it was the waterside setting, but we were in the mood for ﬁ sh and waterfowl the evening we visited. Colette began with fresh, crisp duck spring rolls ($8.95) served over a heavenly, citrusy Napa cabbage slaw and ﬁnished with a toothsome plum sake glaze. Her eyes lit up at ﬁ rst bite, as did mine when she kindly shared. On my pretty sauce-painted plate was a small mound of tender, cornmeal crusted calamari ($9.95), spectacularly set oﬀ by a snappy pico de gallo salsa and a sultry, smoky chipotle remoulade. I had nearly devoured every morsel before Colette’s reproachful look reminded me to share, too. We agreed that our evening was oﬀ to an amazingly ﬁne start.
Next came salads. Colette went for the chopped variety, a favorite of hers, and was delighted to discover that Aqua’s version ($7.95) features cool and fresh romaine, avocado, bell pepper, hearts of palm and grape tomatoes, with a judicious sprinkling of yellow corn kernels and al dente black beans, all dressed in a zingy cilantro lime vinaigrette. I chose the house Caesar ($7.95). Although I was surprised to ﬁ nd grape tomatoes in a salad called Caesar, I was perfectly happy with the hearts of romaine in a dressing with a whiﬀ of anchovy so faint it might have been my imagination, and generously ﬁ nished with shaved asiago cheese. I think the salad is misnamed, but that didn’t stop me from nearly licking the plate. Score Round Two a knockout.
When it came to the main event, I chose char-grilled salmon from the standing menu ($22.95), while Colette was seduced by a special featuring world-class sea scallops ($28.95).
The salmon was a test. Too often lately, the salmon I’ve been served proved to be a nearly tasteless slab of color-enhanced protein. Not this time. Aqua’s chunk of rosy fresh ﬁsh was coaxed to full ﬂavor both by expert grilling and a lively sweet chile glaze. Add a couple of jolly bites of tempura-battered and ﬂash-fried sushi roll and some naturally sweet baby bok choy on the side, paint the plate with a lusty mustard beurre blanc, and you have a prep worthy of a noble ﬁsh.
The sea scallops were simply divine: tender, perfectly fresh, big beauties sautéed just long enough to crisp up a delectable caramelized ponzu glaze on top and bottom. On the side came more of the yummy baby bok choy and an inspired creation: black-tea-infused rice! The combination couldn’t have been better.
Now, a confession. We don’t usually visit restaurants during Early Bird hours, since those specials often do not represent an establishment’s real menu. As it happens, an early dinner suited us on this occasion, and as we waited for cocktails to arrive we cast a casual eye over the Sunset Special Dinner, a three-course prix ﬁxe menu with a glass of house wine included.
Astonishingly, the special was not some subset of the house’s standard fare but reduced portions from the regular menu. At $19.95 ($5 extra for the scallop special), it was a deal we couldn’t refuse. Not only was the food superb, but the portions were just right, leaving us feeling satisﬁ ed but not foundered. We even had room for dessert! And when we said we liked the special menu but would prefer a bottle of something other than the oﬀ ered house wines, the waiter oﬀ ered us a credit against the cost of the bottle we chose. Bravo!
As for dessert, I chose a heavenly slice of New York cheesecake, unadorned but for a handful of fresh berries and a swoosh of rich and creamy dulce de leche on the plate, while Colette opted for a classic crème brûlée with more of the tasty berries. Both were $5.99. We capped the early evening with very good espresso and left happy, sure to return.
AQUA RESTAURANT & THE LITTLE WET BAR
576 Blackburn Point Road, Osprey Reservations: (941) 918-8041 Hours: daily lunch and Sunday brunch 11 a.m.-2 p.m.; Sunset Special 5-6:30 p.m. daily; dinner 5-10 p.m. daily. Cards: VISA, MC,AmEx, Discover Handicapped accessible: by way of ramp to Little Wet Bar and from there by elevator to the dining room Parking: in lot