A Whole Lot More Of The Same Old Thing: Aqimero Reviewed
Look, I’m not pissed off about my meals at Aqimero. To be pissed—for my experiences to rise to the level of actually making me angry beyond a kind of vacant, low-boil frustration—would presume that I was at all surprised by my experiences.
I’m sad, a little bit. It’s depressing to see what could have been a great restaurant space (what should have been a great restaurant space) so terribly misused, and the liveried staff lingering expectantly around the host’s station, waiting for customers who are never going to arrive. To look at those soaring ceilings and sky-reaching pillars, the marble, the vastness of it all, and to know beyond any shadow of a doubt that Aqimero will be (or, again, should be) experienced solely by visitors staying at the Ritz who are afraid to leave the shelter of its luxurious walls, incapable of walking a couple blocks, or just so careless about the price of things that $17 for a (small) plate of fried shrimp seems perfectly reasonable, is just dismal. I didn’t love 10 Arts, which lived here before big-time international restaurateur Richard Sandoval brought Aqimero to the Ritz-Carlton a few months back. I had great meals there, and ones that were merely so-so. A bit of its luster rubbed off after it lost Eric Ripert’s oversight and Jennifer Carroll in the kitchen. But 10 Arts still undeniably fit into the vaulted lobby of the Ritz. It belonged there in a way that Aqimero just … can’t.
But still, I’m not angry. I honestly can’t talk about any of the meals I had there without laughing. Without setting them up like shaggy-dog stories: So I went to Aqimero last night, and you’ll never guess what happened. … So I’m not pissed mostly because I have faith in the people of Philadelphia. Because I know that none of you are going to go there. That you—all of you—can rattle off a half dozen good options within five blocks of Broad and Chestnut and think of far better ways to spend $200 than on a dinner that’s almost as forgettable while being consumed as it is five minutes after you walk out the door.
I’ve been eating at Richard Sandoval restaurants for years. He has several in Denver (which is where I wrote about food for many years before coming here), and in those days, back when he was still very much a part of my beat, he was known as a restaurateur who’d gone in early and heavy on the whole Latino/Asian fusion thing and then just never let it go. He’s got something like 40 restaurants these days, in Qatar, Dubai, Mexico, Serbia, all over the U.S. He must, at this point, employ hundreds of cooks and chefs and culinary professionals at various levels—committed lifers who know a thing or two about the way people eat in their towns, cities or, you know, countries.
And yet, still, on a cool autumn afternoon, I requested a table in the more restaurant-y part of Aqimero (meaning along the side wall, with the banquette seats, not right out in the middle of the lobby, at the raw bar or the bar-bar) and found myself eating off a Nuevo Latino fusion menu of the sort that NO ONE has been interested in since the aughts. Chicken tacos glopped up with gochujang BBQ sauce? Japanese ceviche with chunks of ahi tuna and sweet potatoes? Who, in this time, in this place, is going to go out of his way for a $19 Nikkei lobster sushi roll that had to be deconstructed (the micro-cilantro removed, some of the mayonnaise-heavy spicy sauce scraped off, the limp, cold sticks of asparagus poked out with a chopstick) before it tastes even remotely of the rubbery lobster that makes up its core? Or for a shrimp quesadilla that’s fancy, sure, with its avocado espuma (foam) and smoked bacon, but not, in any real way, actually good. Or at least not functionally better than those served across the bars of dozens of restaurants in this town more in tune with what (and how) actual human beings living in 2016 would like to eat, thank you very much.
Lunch was weird. Quiet. Lonely. Echoing. And fast—which, I guess, is a good thing. Dinner was worse. First, because the stakes were higher (this was an inarguably Fancy Pants dinner, in a room with an undeniable history), and second because it was just worse. In every possible way. The room was barren on a Friday night, well into prime time. The lobster tacos were actually kind of good (small and tidy, with their black bean puree and slices of fresh avocado over a hash of lobster meat that actually tasted like lobster), and so was a surprisingly smart and overcomplicated solterito salad with sharp, bitter greens over hummus and peas, fava beans and grilled potatoes. But the fried shrimp chicharrón was just tempura-battered rock shrimp mounded up on a plate and squirted with a chipotle aioli (really, Richard? Jeez) that immediately made the batter mushy wherever it touched. There was a steak that came overcooked and with the requested Cuban mojo noticeable only at the very tail end of the cut—a faint hint of garlic and citrus in the last bite—and more fusion ceviche that was muddled and punishingly sour where it should’ve been bright and clarifying. The roasted corn soup had about nine too many ingredients (including, but not limited to, a lobster dumpling, huitlacoche vinaigrette, some kind of chili heat I couldn’t exactly place, truffle oil and, somewhere buried in there, corn). And when I ordered the scallops but was given a beautiful half-moon of seafood risotto instead, I was annoyed but should have considered myself fortunate.
I took a few bites before sending it back (because yeah, I’m a dick), and while the risotto was a little gummy—and a little over-paella’d, with all that saffron—the big shrimp and tiny little lobster claw and chunks of chorizo and overall presentation of the thing was nice. The scallops, on the other hand? With their fans of char siu pork belly, brick of sushi rice, creamed corn, pickled jalapeños and nightmare multicultural conglomeration of God only knows what else? I ended up hiding a whole lot of it under plates and in napkins just to make it look like I’d eaten a reasonable amount—so as not to insult the kitchen (which deserved it) or the floor staff (which didn’t). And I’m pretty sure my wife still doesn’t know that I hid a scallop in her purse.
So no, I’m not angry. And I’m not surprised. Aqimero is, in every way, a very Richard Sandoval restaurant. It’s a flawed and dated concept shoved into a space that deserves better, offering mediocre food that aspires to be ambitious and global but mostly settles for being overly complex and, at best, inoffensive. You can drop $200 on a dinner for two, easy, and walk out feeling like you paid $150 of that for two hours’ rent on the table. Service is sweet and charming and trying hard, but with the amount of time staffers spend looking at the doors and waiting for the rush, eventually any with talent (or an instinct toward self-preservation) are going to slip out into the night and not come back.
But that’s all fine. Because none of you are going to go there. Aqimero is what it is—an overpriced, oversized museum of last season’s flavors, existing only to vaguely disappoint the rich and overfed travelers staying at the Ritz. It will be like a game preserve for the one percent. A place only they have to be concerned with, because they’re the only ones who will ever think about it again.
0 stars – Just stay away.