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.
ABOUT THE CHEF
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."