There is something perverse about sitting on the deck of Aquariva as sweating joggers run past. We regard each other. The look in their eyes threatens a sudden attack on my warm asparagus salad from across the shrubbery (while the look in my eyes betrays the disgust I have for my own flabby self). It's a moment of contrast at a South Waterfront restaurant that's all about contrast.
The experience begins at the front door, as the restaurant's warm wooden façade curves gracefully overhead. Once inside, the interior could not be more different. The tones are cool and somber; black-and-white photographs of disaffected women in designer clothing fade in and out on flat-screens. It's like a mausoleum decorated by Richard Avedon. Though the decor is supposed to reflect some kind of post-modern Italian cool, it comes off like a monochromatic Roman winter. The short time spent waiting at the bar for a table was enough for me to be willing to wait a bit longer for a seat on Aquariva's riverside deck.
Again, the deck is in stark contrast to the rest of the restaurant. It's an elegant dining platform that arcs toward the river, with little besides a minimal border of small bulbous shrubs separating the diners from their surroundings—so it's easy to feel close to the joggers and dog walkers who amble along the South Waterfront footpath, though it lends a feeling of territoriality to your meal.
Which illuminates another contrast for Aquariva: It would be easy for a person used to Portland's amazing, casual bistro-style dining to dismiss Aquariva as slick, Lake Oswego pretense—all flash and probably no flavor. That person would be completely wrong. For such a cold place, Aquariva's chefs are warmly producing fine, simple Italian cuisine.
I'll use the asparagus salad as an example: This combination of soft-yolked fried egg, asparagus, Parmesan, and crisp guanciale (bacon made from pig jowls) tastes like a dish that might be served as a mid-morning summer snack at a Tuscan farmhouse.
The contrasts at Aquariva are also apparent in the flavor combinations of several creative dishes. One offering playfully combines the deep oceanic tug of calamari with the terrestrial breeze of fennel, both fried in a light batter.
Other options are just plain scrumptious. Large chunks of Dungeness crab, plum tomatoes, and Calabrese chili peppers nest in a tangle of thin tagliolini noodles. The combination sets the confectionary sweetness of the crab against the buttery pasta and the heat of the chili peppers—all of it shot through with spikes of lemon zest.
It might be appropriate to mention here that Aquariva bills itself as a small-plate restaurant–"tapas style," as one server put it. This is a complete misrepresentation. A plate of rare seared duck breast was more than enough for two people, if not in sheer amount, then in the rich meatiness of the duck, with its perfect crispy searing and just enough fat. If you were to order based on your experience at other tapas-style restaurants, you'd be carrying home a bag of leftovers. Much like I did.
But misleading diners on plate size and an elegantly unpleasant interior are not enough to indict Aquariva. The place would best be left to wedding parties and the well-scrubbed Oswegan set—if it weren't for the contrast of the adequately delicious food. There is, however, enough happening in the simple cuisine to make the aesthetic whiplash worth your while.