"Aqua Blu Kitchen & Cocktails." Phew, that's a mouthful. I think I'll call it "ABK&CTRNJ" for brevity's sake.
It's difficult to judge a restaurant by one visit, based on lunch, when eating alone...but that won't stop me.
Some googling led me to Aqua Blu Kitchen & Cocktails. The menu on the website...and name...certainly piqued my interest. It seemed to me this could be a place serving interesting food along with interesting cocktails with an interesting wine list. After a quick slice of pizza at The Sawmill in Seaside (which seemed soooooo much better when I was a younger man...at 1 am...), I headed over the bridge to Aqua Blu, to see if it is interesting at all. It is.
The friendly service, right out of the gate, was appreciated. Most notably, when I called to ask if they were open, the fella on the phone was polite, professional, and ended the quick convo with "see you soon." <mini-rant>Restaurants owners take note: the person answering your phone is quite possibly the first point of contact with your customer, and first impressions they do last. Train those people and get rid of them if they are incapable of or unwilling to being polite and professional. In fact, do that with all of your employees. Pretend that you're running a business and would like to be successful.</mini-rant>
While it's essentially on the Barnegat Bay*/Toms River, ABK&C:TRNJ offers no views. This lack of view is unfortunate. But hey, you can't eat a view. Am I right people? Right?
The restaurant has quite a large footprint. There's a large, roomy bar area with an even larger adjoining room which can be, and presumably is, set up for events, and a more refined dining room which looks into the open kitchen.
I fully expected the restaurant to be empty on a weekday afternoon. And for the most part, it was. But there were a few people at the bar and in the dining room, from various walks of life. A young-to-me group of girls at the bar was discussing homeowners insurance and talking about flooding. A reminder of how Sandy impacted the area for years to come.
Since I wasn't feeling very refined, and bar dining is always preferable, I sat down at the large, square bar and asked for "all of the menus." I do this, because too often you won't receive "all of the menus." You'll get a bar menu. You won't get a lunch menu. You won't get a cocktail menu or wine list. You'll get just the lunch menu but no bar menu. There have been countless times at restaurants all over the country when I've asked for "all of the menus" and still, still, didn't get "all of the menus." <mini-rant>Restaurant owners take note: how is a customer supposed to make an informed decision and give your business money if they don't know what your business is offering in exchange for that money? Holy moley that annoys me just typing it.</mini-rant>
Thankfully, the bartender quickly presented "all of the menus," and, even took the time to explain each one, and note that while the dinner menu was being presented, some of the dishes might not be available at lunch. Between the guy answering the phone and how well this seemingly insignificant transaction was handled, things were going very well. Oh, and the bartender introduced herself. I like that. I think it's fine. Some people are put off by this practice. Those people are Negative Nancys, and likely treat waitstaff horribly, even though they think they are lots of fun and a pleasure to serve.
The menu is seafood-heavy, including things like oysters and clams and mussels and calamari and octopus and the rest which you can see on their website. The prices, thankfully, are rounded to the dollar. When I see a menu with prices like "$8.95," I can't help but think "pizza place" and/or "get me out of here." A huge turn-off.
The brief wine list includes mostly food-friendly wines, including Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand, a slightly and appropriately oaked Sauvignon Blanc from California (Fumé Blanc), and a German Riesling. I didn't notice the reds because it was 102 degrees outside, I had just spent an hour on the boardwalk, and in my mind drinking a glass of red seemed like it would have been as refreshing as running my tongue across the parking lot.
The cocktail list seems to lean toward sweet concoctions. I did have a cocktail with reposado tequila, grapefruit juice, bitters, lime juice, and topped with seltzer. The cocktail would have been better served if it was shaken, rather than just being built in the glass. But it was quite tasty, and not overly sweet.
I started with an appetizer of shrimp tacos from the bar menu. Three, small, crispy shells, with fish, mango, and cabbage. They hit all the notes: crunchy, a bit of spice, sweet, creamy. If there was a flaw it was that I would have preferred more fish. I did like the way they were cleverly presented between two lime wedges (which should be squeezed on your tacos). Good, solid, elevated bar food at the very least. I can see coming here with some friends and getting a mess of apps and drinks.
Linguini with clams, garlic, charred spring onions, in a white wine broth was up next. I thought they did a nice job with this dish. A simple dish like this can suffer from a lot of flaws, including heavy-handed use of butter, over-cooked pasta, over-cooked or sandy clams, or, *gasp*, the use of cream. The execution of this dish was right on, and I loved the addition of scallions. I would have liked an herbal note, though. This is probably one of the few types of dishes where I'd welcome the normally gratuitous sprinkling of parsley that you find too often in too many mediocre restaurants.
Good service, good food, good vibes.
Obviously I have no idea how this place performs in a dinner/nighttime setting. But if I find myself in the Seaside/Toms River area again, I'll certainly consider returning to Aqua Blu, hopefully with some friends.
*Edited to correct spelling, most notably of Barnegat Bay, a body of water from which I lived 2 miles for a decade and a half of my life, and on which I spent hours cruising around in boats. Duh.