Catch of the Day
At Aqua Reef, the atmosphere is as elegant as the fish is fresh.
Aqua Reef, Las Cruces' smashing new sushi restaurant, is more than dinner — it's a dining adventure. Practically shoe-horned into the old Telshor Deli site in the Celebrate building, the completely renovated space carries no trace of its former identity. In fact, the building's sterile exterior and the meager pot of bamboo at the door belie Aqua Reef's swanky, chic-yet-cozy interior.
The decor is very Zen — clean lines, dark striking colors, smooth luminous stones weighting down the earthy brown napkins set at each place; it's a sort of sophisticated - dining - room - meets - meditation - haven. Just stepping through the door, even behind a herd of other patrons on yet another busy night, is enough to soothe the senses.
On a recent evening, just three weeks after the restaurant's opening, the friendly staff greet the steady stream of guests and guide them to tables or direct them to the bar, where we grab the last two open seats.
The bar, with around a dozen seats, wraps around the floating sushi bar. In a slender steel circular trough of water, a constant stream of little wooden boats bearing tiny plates of food cruises past the seated patrons' eyes. Two sushi chefs prepare fresh sushi rolls and more, replenishing the little boats and handing off special orders to servers to take to tables.
We barely open the handsome book-style menus when a server arrives to take our drink order. Aqua Reef serves eight beers, including some Asian brews, has a good roster of cocktails — some made with sake, of course — and a decent assortment of wines by the glass ($6-$9) and bottle (starting at $14, most in the $25 range). For the non-alcoholic crowd, there are creative specialty cold drinks, plus iced and hot teas, including jasmine petal, green sencha and lily blossom.
The idea of sitting down at a pleasant bar and being able to pluck plates of food off tiny boats for instant gratification is tantalizing. The fact that the dishes are exotic and beautiful — well!
On the floating sushi bar, the different colored plates denote the prices — $2 for the blue plates, $3 for the gold, $4 for black. According to the menu, there are three different items in each price category. We snag two plates — a Kaiso seaweed salad and Sunomono crab salad — to start. The slightly spicy sesame-dressed seaweed salad is complemented perfectly by the cooling crab dish.
We sip our wine and chat with the folks next to us who've just gotten their bento boxes. These combo entrees ($8-$11) feature chicken, beef, salmon or ribs with spring rolls or a potato dish, along with fried rice and seaweed salad. Portions are not skimpy, yet not-too-much, either. Just right, perhaps, after a tiny plate or two from the boat brigade. With just a bento, you'll definitely have room for dessert.
Still contemplating other items on the menu, we grab two plates with maki-type sushi options: one with slightly spicy grilled saku tuna and the other with smoked salmon, mango, cream cheese, scallion and cucumber. Another perfect match-up of heat and cool.
Through our server, we order something hot from the menu, as another couple nearby gets a sushi sampler ($13) and plate of tuna sashimi ($13) delivered. The long, slender, compartmentalized sampler platter with brilliant little portions of fresh yellowtail, shrimp, salmon, squid salad and seaweed salad is elegant to behold.
The lady rolls her eyes with pleasure and comments on the freshness. The couple splits the eight pieces of deep-red tuna slices between them. The sashimi is perfect in texture and color, he says. And this guy seems to know his sushi, as he said his only disappointment with Aqua Reef was that they didn't have his favorite traditional sushi dish — fish roe over a quail egg.
We down another dish from the boat parade — the Ika Sansai Squid Salad — in which the chunks of cephalopods are properly chewy without being rubbery and the veggies are tender. As that small plate is cleared away, our warm prosciutto-wrapped asparagus spears in balsamic glaze ($8) ordered from the menu arrive. Containing three little skewers, the dish is a sweet-and-salty bite of heaven.
Though Aqua Reef bills itself as serving "Euro-Asian cuisine," the menu feels (delightfully!) hard-core Asian, excelling in the fresh and raw, and with only a nod to any "Euro" influences. Even the Baby Back Ribs ($10) — "finger-licking good!" — were cooked in teriyaki sauce. The Chipotle Chicken Salad ($8) and Asadero Stuffed Green Chile ($7) are more New Mexican than "Euro." Menu pages filled with grilled satays, tempuras and other cooked dishes offer plenty of options to those eschewing raw fish. Vegetarians will have to work a bit to string a meal together — Asian Pear Garden Salad, grilled pineapple skewers, miso soup and the aforementioned stuffed chile are the few veggie options we find on the menu.
Surprisingly given its Asian emphasis, Aqua Reef offers a good variety of desserts — from simple ice cream ($3) to tempura ice cream ($6) to chocolate won tons ($5) to chocolate fondue for two ($13). We try the cheesecake spring rolls ($6): vanilla and chocolate cheesecake, deep-fried in a spring-roll wrap. Ample enough to share, it's crispy, not at all greasy, rolled in cinnamon sugar, hot on the outside and still cold on the inside.
Soothed by the elegant atmosphere and attentive staff, our tummies satisfied by the many-flavored meal and its sweet finish, we leave the restaurant already anticipating the next time we hoist anchor and head to Aqua Reef.
— Donna Clayton Lawder