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Restaurant Review - AquaKnox: Age of Aquarius

The globalization of water cuisine

As I sit here writing this, I am trying to imagine under what set of circumstances you would possibly end up eating at AquaKnox. I mean you, personally. Do you work nearby? Do you have $200 burning a hole in your pocket? Do you have a penchant for restaurants that look like a scene out of "Miami Vice," all teal and azure and backlit by bright white lights? Or do you just want some really damn good oysters? Because you'll get some damn good oysters. But I'm still at a bit of a loss as to why you would end up here in the first place.

This restaurant, on the second level of Buckhead's new Terminus building, is the epitome of Atlanta's dining schizophrenia, all flash and glitz without an ounce of homegrown charm, an almost desperate attempt to mimic Las Vegas (where the other outpost of the restaurant resides) or Miami. But what is Las Vegas without casinos? What is Miami without the beach? It's been said before, but do we really want Atlanta to be that city, all the flash and pomp, with absolutely no circumstance? Good Lord, I thought as I looked around the room at AquaKnox. Where did this restaurant come from? Why is it here? The wall of water splashing over the glass wine room, the '80s decor of curved lines and beige booths accented by electric-blue stemware, the catchphrase marketing ("global water cuisine") all seemed so strange. It is obviously aimed at some demographic, but without the chops of a celebrity chef, or even a true concept beyond renaming seafood "water cuisine," what demographic is it hoping to attract?

Oh, and then the oysters arrived. And, as I think I mentioned, they were damn good; the brine, the salt, that magic that starts out metallic and then softens into a hum of richness on the palate. It's not easy to get oysters like that in Atlanta.

It appears AquaKnox is hoping to attract people looking to eat some really good seafood.

The restaurant is a project of E-Brands restaurants, which owns a bunch of concepts across the country, including restaurants in Florida, Texas and Las Vegas. Chef William Sigley is of the Las Vegas school of cooking; he worked under Todd English and Wolfgang Puck in their Las Vegas restaurants before being groomed by E-Brands at the first outpost of AquaKnox. Here's the thing: Sigley is turning out a mishmash of new American-, European- and Asian-influenced food of sometimes astounding quality. Lobster bisque is outrageous with rich flavor and creamy decadence. The signature fish soup entree is full of mussels fat as apricots, alongside sweet, chewy clams and tender-fleshed fish, all swathed in an aromatic saffron broth. The place is quite expensive – entrees hover around $30, and appetizers can be well more than $10, but it seems the restaurant is spending that money on high-quality ingredients and a staff that knows its stuff. Fish are expertly deboned tableside by a waiter with humor and grace. Even the heirloom tomato salad – sure to be a disaster in February, I imagined – tasted as if it must be summer outside. The fruit's sweet, firm flesh paired with essence of basil only needed a little salt to make it perfect.

Not all dishes please so easily. The trio of sashimi appetizer, at $15, lays three varieties of fish against one another and surrounds them with sauces, pickled things and bits of seaweed, and the whole thing seemed a tad overwrought, and distracted from the purity of the fresh fish. An entree of John Dory, the delicate yet substantial white-fleshed fish, was overcooked enough to make the crispy edges chewy – this was especially disappointing, because the sweet corn sauce surrounding the fish was delicate and delicious. Another evening, the dish was perfectly cooked and totally harmonious.

At dessert, the servers may steer you toward the Valrhona chocolate cake with roasted banana ice cream. I expected the ubiquitous flourless ooze-fest, but got a warm cake that seemed fairly traditional, not particularly rich or interesting, either. The bartender's suggestion of a maple walnut tart was much better, fantastic in fact, a hefty, buttery crust filled with big toasty nuts and true maple flavor. I also loved the citrus stack dessert – lacy, crispy burnt-sugar cookies layered with sharply citrusy cream.

Table service can be theatrical in its enthusiasm and complexity, which is fine, but then seems to contrast with occasional long waits for dessert menus or checks. I preferred the service I received at the crowded bar, where a skilled barkeep mixed perfect martinis, moved a mile a minute, and served my multicourse meal with grace and purpose. When did bartending become the territory of the young and feckless? Ditch the hotties and give it back to the old-school professionals, I say. It seems the management of AquaKnox agrees with me.

Yes, AquaKnox is just another in the stampede of ridiculous, overdesigned, practically soulless restaurants currently trampling the city, and Buckhead in particular. It is global mainly in the sense that this restaurant could exist anywhere in the world, but it has quality and luxury in abundance. I still can't quite imagine why you would end up there, but if you do – if you have a rich uncle in town, or $200 burning a hole in your pocket – your belly, if not your soul, will be rewarded.