Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Aqua

The Asian eggplant, wok-fried and flavored with belacan, tastes like Malaysian french fries.                                      DAVID SWANSON/Inquirer
The Asian eggplant, wok-fried and flavored with belacan, tastes like Malaysian french fries. DAVID SWANSON/Inquirer
About the restaurant
705 Chestnut St.
Philadelphia, PA 19106
(215) 928-2838
Rating:
Neighborhood: Old City Parking: Street and lot parking only.
Hours: Entire menu served Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Closed Sunday.
Payment methods:
MasterCard
Visa
Cuisine type: Asian
Meals Served: Lunch Dinner
Style: The neighborhood near Jeweler's Row gets a satisfying taste of exotic Malaysian cuisine with this sleek venture featuring a former chef from Chinatown's Penang. The long dining room has a waterfall to soften the minimalist look, but the food also offers plenty of intrigue, with a proper dose of an authentic funky edge (i.e. shrimp paste chile sauce) to keep the otherwise mainstreamed Malaysian menu real.
Specialties: Roti canai; roti telur; chicken satay; rice net spring rolls; green papaya salad; wonton mee soup; kari ayam; beef rendang; Aqua tofu; Malaysian eggplant; jumbo prawns (coconut or house special style); fried striped bass in Thai chile sauce; roti kaya.
Alcohol: BYOB Try a crisp golden ale, a brut Champagne, or a dry riesling from Alsace or Germany.
Smoking: No smoking.

Sorry, there is no duck web salad on the menu at Aqua near Jeweler's Row. And if you were hoping for a plate of crisply fried pork intestines stuffed with scallions - I wasn't, but still, if you were - it's just a 10-minute stroll to Chinatown, where Penang has been serving a relatively uncensored compendium of Malaysian cookery since 1998.

But the beauty of Malaysian food is that it is such a wide-ranging cuisine. It blends so many ethnic influences - Chinese, Thai and Indian - into its palette that its flavors have a broad appeal, capable of sating adventure eaters and mainstream diners alike. That Aqua's menu is distinctly tilted toward more conservative tastes is not a strike against it, but rather a point of fact.

For example, there are no hacked-up chunks of bony chicken in the curried coconut-milk dip that comes with the roti canai. The striped bass - always served whole in Chinatown - is filleted here before being deep-fried and ladled with Thai chile sauce. Chicken frequently replaces pork. The deep-fried prawns never come with their shells on.

It's perhaps an overly cautious move on the part of owner Jimmy Tran, a former gemologist and Dunkin' Donuts mogul who opened Aqua in August in a former jewelry store at Seventh and Chestnut Streets. The insistence on adding a Thai food addendum to the back of his Malay menu is another caution flag to the savvy eater.

But Aqua turns out to be more than just a watered-down version of one of Philly's most popular ethnic touchstones. For one thing, it's an undeniably pleasant place, with friendly outgoing service, a comfy banquette that runs the length of the bustling room, and a stylishly minimalist decor that features a soothing water wall in back that wraps a private dining room in a sheet of wet glass.

Aqua's biggest asset, though, is chef Lon Poon, a Malaysian-born cook who helped open Penangs in Philadelphia and New York. His menu may be edited for a novice crowd, but the cooking itself is sharp, and the flavors at their root still reveal Malaysian integrity, from the sour lemongrass twang and chile-spiced bite of the tom yum soup to the mysteriously tasty "house special" sauce that covers everything from squid to enormous prawns.

I think of that glaze as the Malaysian equivalent of mole. Dark and complex, it swirls with soy sweetness, piquance and exotic spice from curry leaf, minced lemongrass, oyster sauce and belacan, the fermented shrimp paste that lends a funky marine undertow that is the essence of Malay cooking. It's not fishy, per se, but addictively earthy. Ladled onto Aqua's giant butterflied shrimp - wonderfully tender because they enter the kitchen alive - the sauce accentuates the crustaceans' natural sweetness.

Belacan also gets tossed with the wok-fried Asian eggplant, lending the crispy, purple-skinned sticks a salty spark that makes them taste like Malaysian french fries.

For those who aren't quite yet ready for a funky marine undertow, Aqua offers plenty of more accessible flavors. The roti canai is a must for starters, a griddled crepe of gossamer dough that arrives bundled like a crunchy scarf next to that curried coconut-milk dip. The roti telur wraps that crepe around what is essentially an omelet, filled with scallions and sweet onions.

The charcoal-grilled satay skewers are good, but not great, the sweet peanut-tamarind sauce a little too timid with spice. The tender chicken satay is more notable than the beef.

If Aqua has a signature dish to distinguish it from the other Malaysians in town, it would be the rice net spring roll, a filling of crab and shrimp deep-fried inside the lacy crunch of mashed taro root.

While Thai food is hardly the reason to come to Aqua, I did find a couple of gems from that side of the menu to recommend, such as the crunchy lettuce cups that come with basil stir-fried chicken, as well as a fragrant stir-fried rice that comes stuffed into the hollow of a pineapple.

Aqua also happens to make a wonton mee soup that could compete with Chinatown's best. The tender, thin-skinned wontons float alongside greens in golden, sesame-scented broth over a nest of thread-thin egg noodles.

I found most of the noodle stir-fries, like the chow kueh teow, to be bland and forgettable. The mango chicken, a sweet and sour variation that is always popular with first-timers to Malaysian food, was also too tame for me, with slivered chicken and mango tossed in gussied-up ketchup.

However, I loved Aqua's rendition of coconut shrimp - another gringo-friendly dish that is frequently botched with heavy-handed sweetness. These enormous crustaceans were crisply fried in a garlicky dusting of tapioca flour, then buried in the roasty sweetness (but not too sweet) of shredded coconut and fried basil leaves.

The various Malay meat stews were also superb. The kari ayam brought wonderfully tender morsels of braised chicken in a curried coconut gravy. The fork-soft chunks of beef rendang were permeated with a lustier spice and a shade of star anise.

The Aqua tofu was an especially nice find. Poon makes his own bean curd, which gets firmed with a quick wok fry, then ladled with an addictive ground chicken gravy flared with a tomato basil curry.

My biggest surprise, though, was the Thai chile striped bass. It was the first time in a while I'd been served fish at a traditional Asian restaurant that wasn't whole - a juicier presentation that I generally prefer. But these fillets were, in fact, considerably larger than those of the puny, overcooked red snapper I'd been served a day earlier at one of Aqua's Malaysian competitors in Chinatown. And they were perfectly cooked: the crust crackly thin, the meat pristine and flaky. The chile sauce was sweet, but also rang with garlic and that telltale twinge of belacan.

If that's a taste of Malaysian made easy, I'm in.


Contact restaurant critic Craig LaBan at 215-854-2682 or claban@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/craiglaban.
Inquirer Restaurant Critic
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