First Look: Aqimero

How do you know when you’re on a vacation? Somebody opens the door for you, smiling, and shortly thereafter, somebody else brings you a cocktail. Something refreshing. There are craggy oysters and pink shrimp resting in ice, awaiting some future destination, and there are palm trees in abundance.

At Aqimero, the new Richard Sandoval restaurant in the Ritz Carlton, its clear that that vacation-style hospitality is on the menu.

In it’s former incarnation, as Eric Ripert’s 10 Arts, the lobby of the Ritz-Carlton (Frank Furness’ beautiful Beaux Arts style bank building, complete with marble columns and a soaring solarium) the design strategy was to build warmth and intimacy into the austere space. You may recall the vermillion drapes, the vaguely Moroccan magenta banquettes, or the stately, imposing wine storage column built into the center of the room. Now, all of those elements stripped away, the effect of the new space is open and breezy. Gray linen lounge seating is tucked into an abundance of plants, the natural light from the solarium flooding in, reflecting off of smoky glass coffee tables and swirling wall panels.The dining room itself, along the Chestnut street side of the room, is more of the same; blonde, blue, and gold accents adding to the vaguely tropical feel.

Even if you’re not destined for a southerly vacation destination, you can begin a visit to Aquimero with a mezcal nod to Mexico. The new bar boasts an impressive selection of this incredibly trendy spirit. Order a pour and it arrives in a fluted votive candle holder accompanied by little wedges of orange and a pinch of bright orange worm salt and another of purple grasshopper salt. Both salts are mineral and tangy, balancing the sweetness of the fruit and the smoky spirit.

For something to last a little longer, begin with a Mezcal Mule (mezcal, tequila, rosemary-pineapple shrub, lime, ginger beer) or the Narcissistic Noriega. The latter matches mezcal with orange and cucumber for a basic, refreshing sipper, but rims the drink with Tajin, the punchy, addictive chili-lime-salt combination that you might have enjoyed elsewhere on mango.

Sandoval’s menu, executed by chef de cuisine Garrett Welch is, as expected, expansive. There are plenty of offerings to fortify those stopping in for a drink in advance of dinner elsewhere. Think spicy crab guacamole with chipotle and a pile of house-made tortilla chips, or chifa cevice, a pretty tumble of salmon, mandarin, and leche de tigre a citrus-forward marinade. Speaking of Chifa (sorry, Garces), Latin-Asian fusion is in full effect with the sushi offerings on the raw bar menu. There’s the California Nueva roll, crab and avocado with a chicharron crust; the Nikkei lobster roll with ponzu and ahi panca; and a handful of other especially trend-forward offerings, the most over-the-top of which is the black sticky rice roll of barbecued eel and cucumber, each segment of which is topped with a little medallion of foie gras torchon and a paper thin slice of serrano.

Sitting down for dinner? Begin with one of many appetizers or soup/salad offerings that are both approachable— lobster tacos with black bean puree, avocado, and chile de arbol salsa—and more ambitious, like the Spanish octopus, grilled and glazed with black olive caramel, perched atop a salad of arugula, cherry tomatoes, and petals of pickled red onion.

The centerpiece to both the menu and the dining room is the wood-burning grill. Fitted with a crank-wheel to be raised or lowered for high or low-temperature cooking, it stands at one end of the dining room, the cooks operating it like fish in an aquarium behind a wall of glass. It’s an elegant solution to the open kitchen dilemma for guests who like to watch someone else work, without themselves leaving the meal smelling of smoke or grease, and for cooks whose language is colorful as the array of steaks and seafood sizzling over the coals. Shrimp, lobster, an array of steaks or chicken are all ready to be brushed with your choice of different marinades, one with toasted sesame and smoked chilies, another Mojo-style with roasted garlic, citrus, and lemongrass.

From the grill to the entree menu of Jidori chicken, seared scallops, and seafood risotto, and then onto the menus of side dishes and desserts, Sandoval’s Latin-Asian flavors appear over and over, able to be combined and customized to your liking.

While it doesn’t necessarily represent anything incredibly new (with the exception of that double-digit mescal selection), walking through the doors at Aqimero, the elegant hospitality of the Ritz-Carlton at your feet, does allow for one to escape the crush of the city in summer. And sometimes a vacation, even without leaving town, is exactly what you need.

Aqimero [f8b8z]