Thursday, June 21, 2007

Summer Seaside Specialties at Aquagrill

Aquagrill's bright blue sign on the corner of Sixth Ave and Spring St is a sign of a long-time Soho standby when it comes to reliably delicious and fresh seafood. The restaurant has attracted numerous awards—best brunch, best patio, and best bar for a full meal—and for that, the tables, bar stools, and mini front lounge remain in a constant state of packed-ness.

The menu is full of tantalizing choices; especially as the exciting month of June rolls around and waters are jumping with fresh Holland herring, soft shell crabs, Mexican oysters, and spot prawns. Even so, Jeremy Marshall, executive chef and owner (with his wife Jennifer who heads up the restaurants wine program) keeps Aquagrill classics on the menu that are too delicious to rotate out.

Bonito sashimi
Tuna tartare
Black sea bass with pea puree and asparagus
Strawberry shortcake
My recent meal at the seafood haven consisted of a combination of summer specials and core classics. One of those mainstays is the tuna tartare, which is unlike any other tuna tartare in the city.

The Marshall’s serve a block of tender tuna flanked with crispy taro chips for scooping up the delight. The tender pink fish perches on a cucumber carpaccio, sprinkled with flying fish roe, and liberally topped with ginger. The flavors work perfectly.

The same goes for the Bonito Sashimi, a current special appetizer of chunks of sesame-flecked mackerel that come with marinated eggplant and edamame in sweet Thai vinaigrette.

Don’t miss out on the Mexican oysters. I had the chance of eating a few varieties while in Zihuantanejo a few years ago and I’ve been dreaming about them since.

Mexican oysters are different than other oysters because of the unique waters in which they develop—a warm bay fed by a cold Alaskan current. The result is a super salty and simultaneously creamy oyster.  The night I was dining, kumomotos and el cardons were available.

To show off the bounty of spring, a black sea bass with spring pea purée and asparagus took center stage. It came with flawless pockets of gnocchi, whose richness played off the subtleties of the flaky fish and the bright green purée.

However, the true showstopper was the soft shell crab entrée. Soft shell crabs arrive from Maryland with shells as thin as paper, making the crustacean completely edible. Aquagrill serves the delicacies in a tangy, refreshing mandarin orange sauce. Two crispy crabs balance atop one another on a bed of wilted spinach. The result of the melding flavors is an irresistible zing. I had to experiment with this one at home. I set up a few soft shells to fry up, but instead of the usual flour, egg, salt, and pepper combo, I added orange juice to the battering process. It wasn’t as good as Mr. Marshall’s version, but it was a good home version.

Even if I do end up perfecting the soft shell crab recipe, there are so many reasons to revisit Aquagrill this summer. I want to try a kumomoto sampler of oysters from Mexico, California and Washington and decide which I prefer. Spot Prawns, those bursting with ripe roe, will be on the menu shortly, served flash-roasted with a dash of sea salt and truffle butter. An heirloom tomato and crab salad will most definitely become a summertime favorite, as well as pilsner steamed clams. I’m always a sucker for the sea snail variety, available almost exclusively at Aquagrill. Where else can you get periwinkles, whelks, and conch almost nightly?

The Dish’s Mandarin Soft Shell Crabs

2 Soft Shell
1 egg
1/3-cup Mandarin orange juice or regular orange juice
1 cup flour
2 cups oil for frying

1. Have your fishmonger clean the crabs for you! Dry them with paper towels when you get home.

2. Pour oil into a frying pan. Get it very hot.

3. Meanwhile, beat egg and mix it with orange juice. Pour it into a shallow dish.

4. Spread the four into another shallow dish. Mix it with salt and pepper.

5. Dip the crabs in the flour mixture, then the egg mixture, and then the flour mixture again.

6. Drop the crabs into the oil carefully. Fry them for 1-2 minutes per side. They should turn golden brown.

– Jill Donenfeld

"When not scooping the latest for NYSD, Jill Donenfeld heads up The Dish's Dishes, a personal chef and catering company founded for those who crave delicious food without the hassle of making reservations, ordering in, or turning on the oven. For more information on how to get your first DISH, check out