There's something going on. Mid-century modern — beaded curtains, chartreuse club chairs and oversized white linen pendant lamps — is back, at least in hotel and restaurant design. Not quite Eames lounges and Le Corbusier chairs, but the new Westin Tampa Bay Airport has the retro-chic vibe you see all over Las Vegas hotels. That goes double for its restaurant, Aquaknox.
Owned by E-Brands (Samba Room, Timpano and others), Aquaknox has two sister restaurants, one in Atlanta and one, unsurprisingly, in Vegas. With a tagline of "Global Water Cuisine," it puts its cards on the table: This is seafood, sourced from all over the world, served in a business-friendly upscale hotel setting right on the Courtney Campbell Parkway.
Because of its location, and despite its prettiness, it might be relegated to business travelers, important meetings and office parties were it not for a few secret weapons. First, chef Kevin Riley's adroit way with shellfish and flatfish reflects both a gastronomic dynamism and an appreciation for clean, simple flavors. Second, the desserts whipped up by pastry chef Catherine Peplowski will knock your socks off. And third, the service staff is trained to a fare-thee-well.
Sometimes the menu introduction can verge on preachy, but I'm chalking that up to a new crew eager to prove its mettle. At lunch and dinner, servers guide and explain with full knowledge of dishes' nuances and components. Some of it doesn't need much introduction: A gargantuan, gleaming exhibition kitchen is fronted by a raw bar stocked with Maine Jonah crab claws, oysters, lobsters and such. Some fine choices, surely, but with straightforward raw bar goodies you don't get to see the kitchen strut its stuff.
One night's bigeye tuna toro appetizer ($16) caused conversation to drift off, its plush squares of super-fresh fish contrasted by lengths of pink grapefruit, cubes of rich avocado, matchsticks of lemon zest and a drizzle of mild soy. Lovely. Riley's attentions waver just slightly with salads, a butter lettuce and herb salad ($9) spare unto boring, and one lunch's shrimp Cobb salad ($11) falling short with a long heart of romaine surrounded by bacon, blue cheese and other fixings. Robert Cobb at the Brown Derby would have had to look twice to recognize his invention.
These were our only ho-hum assays on two recent visits, one a majorly satisfying lunch with a huge, juicy burger ($11) topped with melty, tangy Tillamook and paired with magnificent shoestring fries. Maybe good sense should have kicked in with another dish, a tempura grouper sandwich ($12), which also came with those shoestrings, but arteries be damned, the fries got eaten (special kudos to the housemade buns and the sandwich's zippy wasabi sauce).
The greatest hurrahs, though, should be reserved for dinner entrees like a perfect mesquite-grilled king salmon ($27) surrounded by pure Mediterranean magic: slow-roasted tomato and peppery arugula, a little white bean ragout and a slick of roasted pepper sauce. Or a fillet of grouper ($30), shimmery with black bean-chile glaze, set atop a sweet soy-lemongrass broth and fat udon noodles hiding baby bok choy and delicate enoki mushrooms.
The beverage program doesn't measure up to the food's charm or distinction (beer and wine offerings are somewhat prosaic), but the desserts, as I've said, finish things up with a bang. A raspberry napoleon ($7.50) brings a trio of tiny confections, all mutually reinforcing, the custard-and-berry phyllo stack buttery and rich, its berry sorbet refreshing and bright. Mixed berry tart ($7.50) is textbook and sophisticated, the pastry melting away in the mouth to leave the memory of just-pillaged berry bramble.
The hip decor alone is enough to keep the bar stools warm. Add in an abundance of kitchen talent and service moxie, and Aquaknox is a glamorous new trove of seafood riches.
Laura Reiley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293. Her blog, the Mouth of Tampa Bay, is at www.blogs.tampabay.com/dining. Reiley dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses. Advertising has nothing to do with selection for review or the assessment.