By Sandy Eller
Living in New York, you get kind of complacent. We live in the largest Jewish community in the United States and have just about all the conveniences we could ever want. Plenty of minyanim at all hours of the day? Check. Stores that sell appropriate apparel? Yup, got that too. Easy access to kosher food and restaurants? You bet.
But we are probably all guilty of having at least some amount of tunnel vision–and I am not referring to the Midtown, Battery, Lincoln, or Holland. I am talking about a mentality that mirrors the iconic New Yorker cartoon that depicts how residents of the Empire State see the good old US of A: there is New York City, the Hudson River, New Jersey, some farmland, and then finally California.
We sometimes forget that there is a whole big country out there, with plenty of kosher restaurants, some of which are so good they could go toe to toe with the best eateries in NYC.
In this case, I am referring to a visit to the newly opened Acqua, a fabulous dairy trattoria located in Aventura, which, for the geographically challenged or those who aren’t familiar with South Florida, is just north of Miami. I know what you’re thinking: she must be joking. Restaurants have to serve steak or ribs, or at least really high-quality deli in order to be worth the trip. But Acqua is that rare non-fleishig place that gets it right: high-quality ingredients that take center stage in carefully constructed dishes that may just have you contemplate giving up meat forever.
Owner Avi Bitton is well known in the Miami restaurant business, and Acqua is his fourth successful foray into the kosher-food scene. Bringing his flair for creativity, his passion for food, and his boundless energy, Avi’s enthusiasm is evident throughout Acqua, a beautifully decorated space whose teal walls and wood tones suffuse the eatery with a tranquil oceanic feeling.
While the decor may set the stage in any restaurant, it is the food that is the star of the show–and the fare at Acqua may well be Oscar-worthy. There were plenty of intriguing choices when it came to start our meal, with a solid selection of appetizers and an impressive lineup of raw-fish items. Our arancine–mozzarella-stuffed fried rice balls–came with a choice of three sauces, and we went with wild mushroom, which was out of this world.
The ceviche trio was my first foray into the world of citrus-marinated raw fish, and one I would highly recommend. Each of the three ceviches was composed of nice-sized bits of seasoned and marinated grouper and was bright, flavorful, and so delicious.
The salmon carpaccio, a large plate of thinly sliced raw salmon topped with a balsamic reduction, was also truly excellent and practically a meal in and of itself.
I should warn you that Acqua is not the kind of place where you ask waiters for substitutions or to omit certain items from your plate. Every menu item is carefully choreographed, and it is well worth casting aside any preconceived notions of what you do and don’t like, because everything here was both insanely good and unbelievably fragrant. Everything we ate was so amazing that as we enjoyed our mains, there was not a whole lot of talking going on–we were busy inhaling the incredible aromas and savoring every bite.
The baked bronzino was so fresh I couldn’t help wonder if it had been swimming in the Intracoastal just half an hour earlier, and the mushroom-crusted sea bass was the epitome of perfection, better than any steak I have ever eaten.
Our entrÃ©es were accompanied by impossibly creamy mashed potatoes and a wonderfully atypical assortment of roasted vegetables that included beets, fennel, parsnips, and fingerling potatoes.
Understanding that not everyone eats fish, Acqua also serves risotto and a variety of homemade pastas, including filled varieties like ravioli and tortellini, and others bathed in heavenly sauces. Options ranged from the familiar macaroni and cheese to the more exotic gnocchi in saffron cream sauce. Our wild-mushroom-infused Gigli pasta, nestled on a bed of Parmesan cream sauce, was beyond decadent and was bursting with flavor.
Take me to a top-notch dairy place and there isn’t a chance in the world you will get me out of there without dessert, no matter how full I am. Our desserts exceeded my already high expectations. While I typically avoid cheesecake in restaurants because I am always on the lookout for innovative (and preferably chocolate) desserts, the strawberry cheesecake was exceptional. The s’mores were creamy and chocolaty without being overly sweet, with layers of graham-cracker crumbs, cookies-and-cream mousse, chocolate mousse, and perfectly toasted mini marshmallows served in an adorable mason jar.
The prices at Acqua, which is under the supervision of the Vaad Hakashrus of Miami-Dade, were perfectly reasonable, with appetizers and salads priced in the $8—$24 range, pastas at $16—$22, and fish selections from $28 to $44. There are so many intriguing items on the menu that I find myself trying to come up with an excuse to go back to South Florida just so I can go back to Acqua again. One of my top-ten all-time favorite restaurants, Acqua is a wonderful new addition to the Miami restaurant scene and definitely worth a visit.
Sandy Eller is a freelance writer who writes for numerous websites, newspapers, magazines, and private clients. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.