Twist of Fate

This restaurant is closed.

I have a love-hate relationship with Trattoria Acqua. I love the chef's creativity and the staff's generally competent cooking. I hate the evil twist of fate that compels the kitchen to serve over-the-hill produce or faded fish alongside first-class meats and seafood. It's bewildering, but that was the case at my first meal there four years ago, and it was equally true two weeks ago.

The menu's genre is "avant-garde Italian," a style that more than pushes the Italian envelope. The dishes change with the seasons, and over the long term new choices replace those that have run their course. What spurred my visit this month was the restaurant's tenth annual "game festival," running through November and featuring daily specials of "wild" meats, such as squab, rabbit, and venison. Along with deep flavors, these offer lean, healthy protein, farm-raised in cleaner conditions than feedlot beef or factory chickens.

The premises look more Spanish hacienda than Italian restaurant. Arched doorways divide a warren of white-painted, high-ceilinged rooms, and there are several levels of outdoor terraces; a tiled, heated courtyard is the main focus. Whimsical touches include stenciled cupids on the interior walls and painted yellow shoeprints on the courtyard floor to guide your feet to the hostess station.

Once seated, I couldn't help but notice some lapses, given that this is a "destination restaurant" for many locals and visitors. My place setting (the silverware is lightweight for a restaurant in Acqua's price range) included a dirty fork. The patron population was sparse that chilly weeknight, except for a birthday party in another room, celebrated by three dozen cell-phone-wielding, twentysomething blondes wearing outfits cut down to here and up to there, navels exposed. My friend Dave sighed over the cleavage. "Be still, my heart." The waiter responded, "It's all fake." But another waiter was vulnerable. In the middle of grinding pepper onto our appetizers, he fell into a trance, set the mill on our table, and evanesced toward the party.

Our dishes ran the gamut from dazzling to dismaying. On a positive note, dinner begins with crusty Italian bread and the signature dip of parsleyed hummus, without the grainy mouth-feel of puréed chickpeas. Appetizers are huge. Our best, Cozze alla Birra, mussels steamed in Karl Strauss amber lager, would be enough for a lunch for two or an appetizer for four -- so long as you had that bread for sauce-sopping. The bivalves are blue Mediterranean seedling mussels with sweet, firm meats the size of fingertips. Infused with mussel liqueur, the broth is adorned with thick-sliced pancetta (Italian bacon), shallots, chili flakes, and garlic slices. On top are fresh diced tomatoes and puffs of Sonoma goat cheese that melt into the broth.

A Maine lobster bisque could be a Thai or Vietnamese spin on the Western warhorse. Light in texture and flavor, its dominant note is lemongrass over tomato, cream, and a hint of crustacean. You can enjoy this soup and still face the rest of dinner. Fried calamari seem airy enough to float off the plate, but while the tentacles are tender, the rings are chewy -- the usual problem with frying previously frozen squid. For dipping, there's a Moroccan harissa aioli with hot red pepper.

Insalata Caprina is a salad of frisée (curly endive) with a "Laura Chenel goat cheese panna cotta." It sounded great, but the overdose of vinegar in the pistachio vinaigrette overwhelmed the pistachio oil. Garnishes for the bitter greens included unripe tomato slices, apples, and pecans glazed in pumpkin pie spice, a flavor peculiar in the context. The cheese was smothered in prosciutto, so I couldn't tell whether it was really a panna cotta (a gelatin-bound mousse).

A graver ingredient problem befell an otherwise glorious carpaccio of raw Meyers Natural Beef sliced so thin you could read through it. The accompanying gorgonzola cheese and Dijon vinaigrette dressed arugula yellowed with age, some of the leaves dark green and starting to liquefy. The chef later told me that fresh fish and produce come in daily, but somebody in the kitchen ought to have dumped this stuff on the purveyor's head.

Another service slip occurred as we awaited the next course. When I ordered our entrées, I chose a young California Merlot. The waiter brought the bottle as the appetizer plates were cleared but let it stand unopened and unpoured until he'd served the main courses. A week earlier at Grant Grill, an expert waiter had opened our red while we were still sipping a white with the starter course and poured it even before the appetizers were cleared. This allowed the wine to breathe for nearly an hour in the bottle and briefly in the glass, which softened the tannins and let the bouquet emerge. Since Acqua's wine list has won Wine Spectator awards for many years running, I'd have expected the staff here to do the same when serving young reds, especially those made from high-tannin Bordeaux-type grapes.

Among the entrées, the evening's "game month" specials included squab, which is not a city pigeon but a clean, farm-raised fledgling about to exchange its down for feathers. Our bird was large for its age, its rich but fatless meat cooked to medium rare, with a sweet glaze on the skin. Garnishes included baby spinach with caramelized onions, shallots, and multicolored potatoes.

Arista di Maiale features a naturally raised Niman Ranch pork chop, slow roasted with a gorgonzola cheese stuffing. It's plated with apple compote, red wine sauce, and parsnip purée. Unlike grilling, roasting gives the customer no choice of doneness, and the default here is the old-fashioned 165 degrees of well done, compared to a modern medium rare of 140 degrees. (All trichinosis spores are killed in five minutes at 137 degrees, while the meat retains its juices.) The pungent cheese filling moistens the meat, however, and gives the dish character and contrast.

Agnolotti (a scallop-edged ravioli variation) are silky house-made pasta pillows the size of saltines, stuffed with wild mushroom and black truffle purée. They're bathed in a light cream sauce flavored with Marsala wine and porcini mushrooms. (We ignored the garnish of diced winter tomato.) Each of us fell in love at first bite but soon broke off the affair as the ensemble lulled our mouths to sleep as surely as real pillows. I'd love to find a few of the agnolotti alongside a simple meat dish, rather than as a stand-alone entrée.

Branzino al Limone, oven-roasted Pacific sea bass, might have been the evening's best dish had the fish been palatable. The piscine hunk looked like a fashion model -- tall, white, and flaky. But it tasted muddy and smelled "fishy," and sea bass is not a "fishy" species (like John Dory or mackerel). The bass is oven-roasted with a coating of Algerian spices, Moroccan-style preserved lemons, and Greek-style black and green olives. It's surrounded by couscous in herbed beurre blanc and roasted veggies (zucchini and eggplant in a thin tomato sauce). Even my couscous-hating boyfriend loved the way this kitchen prepared the grain, and I was impressed by the chef's mastery of North African flavors and techniques. I'd order this dish again, in the hope that next time I'd catch a fresher fish.

Acqua has no dedicated pastry chef, but the kitchen makes all the desserts. My favorite is a honey-orange ricotta cheesecake flavored with orange zest. It's topped with an orange juice glaze; the crust of ground pistachios is sweetened with honey. On the side is a puff of whipped cream and out-of-season strawberries. Somebody's nonna back in Italy must have invented this -- blow her a kiss. Berries aside, I'd put this sweet among the top three I've eaten this year.

We also tried something called Tartufo all'arancio, a dense chocolate-orange mousse that was sweeter than any of us could stand. "It tastes like Tootsie Rolls," said Marty. "No, Tootsie Rolls taste better," said Dave, pushing it away.

A lady at the next table, hearing us purr over our third dessert, leaned over to ask, "Is that the zamboni?" Marty managed not to laugh. "No," he said, "it's not a machine for surfacing ice rinks. It's zabaglione, whipped Marsala-egg custard." Traditionally served warm, here it's presented as a frozen zabaglione soufflé, served with passionfruit sorbet atop a bed of vanilla panna cotta. The combination is so refreshing, you might swear you hadn't just eaten a big Mediterranean meal.


Damaso Lee, executive chef of Trattoria Acqua, was born in Mexico City. "When I was a little kid in Mexico, we [my brothers and I] used to help my grandma cook at home. We went [with her] to the market every day to get fresh produce. She taught me the basics. When I came to America, I started working at Il Fornaio in Del Mar. I really loved it. It was different food, Italian, and I started getting more into Italian cuisine."

He worked there for nearly nine years. "Then I had the opportunity to get a scholarship to go to the CIA in the Napa Valley. I was there for a couple of months." Among his instructors were famed chefs Jean-Louis Palladin and Todd Humphries. "I had several different courses: Mediterranean cooking, French bistro cooking, a master class on game, poultry, and fish. The Mediterranean class was on Tunisian, Turkish, and Moroccan food -- that's where I learned to use those spices and to cook couscous from scratch. Meanwhile, I worked for Thomas Keller at the French Laundry for a couple of weeks; he was guiding me and answering my questions about techniques. Then I had a chance to work at Tra Vigne with Michael Chiarello. Keller told me, 'If you stay with me on the French cuisine, you'll learn a lot of techniques, but if you really are in the Italian business, you should work with Michael Chiarello.'

"When I came back to Acqua, I was working as a sous chef, but when the previous chef left for New York, [owner] Michael McGreath gave me the opportunity to be the chef here, five years ago."

Damaso and his brother Hugo are also responsible for overseeing younger sister restaurant Sofia's, which serves home-style Italian cooking in the Aventine courtyard a few miles north. "Every morning I go down to Sofia's, and after one, I come down to Acqua. I've got my chef de cuisine up there. On the weekends and during weeknight dinners I spend one hundred percent of my time at Acqua. I also do all the purchasing. We try to get everything locally to support our local growers. We make phone calls every day to the fish company and the produce company to find out what is in season."

For the game menus served every November, he went to Robert Mondavi Winery to learn about pairing wines to game meats. "It's easy to get game in the Napa Valley [but] hard to find in Southern California, and here I have to educate the staff to teach our customers that game is healthy and high in protein, low fat, raised with no hormones. When the game menu is over, after Thanksgiving we're doing a truffle dinner. It's something special for the season. I like to bring in new ingredients as I learn about them. I'm hoping to contribute to the elevation of the cuisine in San Diego restaurants."

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