Most residents of Seattle are in no hurry to see another volcanic eruption, that is, unless it's the Emerald City Volcano, a flamboyant flaming dessert that is served tableside after sunset at AQUA by El Gaucho.
Back in the Fifties, Seattle's original El Gaucho was the epitome of "class" as measured by the standards of the Rat Pack and Vegas. Seasoned waiters in tuxedos tossed Caesar salads and ignited desserts. The seductive supper club atmosphere made El Gaucho the definitive destination for Seattle romance, right up to its closing in 1985.
Reopened in 1996, El Gaucho has retained its "dinner-as-theatre" concept, thanks to impresario owner Paul Mackay, who still recalls the frisson of his first encounter with the original Seattle institution. With outposts in Portland, Tacoma, and Bellevue, as well as The Inn at El Gaucho, El Gaucho has become the benchmark for elegant dining in Seattle.
The El Gaucho brand has been so successful that in 2011 Mackay rechristened his Waterfront Seafood Grill as AQUA by El Gaucho. Situated on a pier that was once the home of The Real World: Seattle, AQUA by El Gaucho benefits from a splendid locale at the base of Olympic Sculpture Park, overlooking Elliott Bay and the Olympic Mountains. It almost goes without saying that sunsets are spectacular and a cocktail at gloaming becomes Hollywood romantic, which is exactly as Mackay planned it.
As soon as you cross the threshold of AQUA by El Gaucho, you feel as if you're walking onto a stage already crowded with directors and stars, bit players and chorus members. Flames leap into the air, accompanied by pianists Jerry Frank or Ben Fleck who tickle the ivories and an 85-foot bar is lined with some of Seattle's more sartorially-savvy citizens. The restaurant possesses some of that Vegas pizzazz, albeit imbued with a Seattle coolness, and the overall atmosphere is both swanky and relaxed. You feel as if you've found the place that the best of Seattle knows.
With a name like AQUA, there's no question that the menu's focus is on seafood, much of it from Taylor Shellfish Farms, the largest producer of farmed shellfish in the States and one of the region's most active stewards of sustainable marine farming.
As a rule, Executive Chef Steve Cain lets the freshness of the seafood do the talking, though there's also a nod to classic seafood fare such as a spicy crab bisque and Dungeness crab cakes with a Cajun remoulade. A seafood stew bows to the east with a red Thai curry and a coconut ginger broth, while the grilled Chilean sea bass hails from a Marine Stewardship Council certified fishery.
As for the Emerald City Volcano, it's a dessert worthy of the fiery fanfare: a baked Alaska with double chocolate and Bordeaux cherry ice cream and vanilla genoise. Not unlike a flame swallower in Vegas, the tableside performance commands attention, with smart phones and cameras raised all around the vast dining room. At that point, resistance is futile and you'll probably smile and you might even applaud and you'll definitely toast to another good show at AQUA by El Gaucho.