When walking into Richard Sandoval’s latest restaurant in center city on a Friday evening, one cannot help but feel the airy elegance embrace them. Aqimero, the latest of Sandoval’s over 40 restaurants worldwide, recently replaced 10 Arts at the Ritz-Carlton Philadelphia. The restaurant and lounge fills the soaring white marble solarium with intimate blues, silvers, blacks, and grays. Inviting linen chairs and couches complement crisp lacquered tables and elegant crystal chandeliers.
Aqimero’s menu is filled with Latin inspired dishes, which are mostly prepared over a wood-fired grill in the open-air kitchen at the rear of the dining room. An excellent raw bar menu complements the wood-fired offerings with oysters, ceviche, and sushi rolls. The cocktail menu is filled with artistic libations with mescal being the star ingredient. This smoky, agave based liquor distilled in Mexico is also available by the glass or even by the flight. A perfect starting point for the Latin journey would be the Mexican Mule, which combines mescal, tequila, rosemary-pineapple shrub, lime, and ginger beer. For the more adventurous, the Narcissistic Noriega combines mescal with agave, orange, cucumber, and Serrano chili to deliver a smoky cocktail with slight heat on the finish.
The wine list has been expertly curated and features selections from across the globe. Of particular interest are those which may be said to be of Latin influence. Wines from Argentina, Chile, Spain, and Portugal abound. A standout among the wines by the glass and an excellent value by the bottle is the 2012 Gran Reserva Carmenere by Concha Y Toro from the Cachapoal Valley in Chile. This wine is a perfect pairing to many of the dishes prepared on the wood-fired grill.
A stroll through the raw bar menu starts with a fresh daily selection of east and west coast oysters. Stars of the sushi menu include the Nikkei Lobster Roll composed of New England lobster, aji panca,and ponzu and the Foie Gras and BBQ Eel Roll that is finished with black sticky rice, kabayaki sauce, and cucumber. For those who would like a starter not from the raw bar, Aqimero offers up several excellent choices. For instance, the Crispy Calamari is lightly battered and severed with poblano chili tartar sauce and salsa verde. The Roasted Corn Soup with lobster dumplings is finished with truffle oil, creating a smooth and rich dish that appeals to all of the senses. Diners are enticed to delve deeper into the Latin culinary experience when warm pitas accompanied with goat cheese and a tomato, chipotle pepper jam for spreading are delivered to the table. The jam is a refreshing alternative to traditional mundane spreads and starts with a tangy sweetness, only to finish with smoky heat.
Patrons may choose from a wide selection of chef specialties and wood-fired creations for their main course. Seafood and meats from the grill may be prepared in three different styles including Adobo (smoked chilis, sesame, ginger, and achiote), Mojo (Cuban style marinade of garlic, citrus, lemongrass, and herbs), and Naked (simply grilled). The Mojo Style Skirt Steak comes elegantly plated, is tremendously tender, and has perfectly complementary flavors of citrus and smoky char. Another winning dish is the Jidori Chicken in Adobo, which is served over creamed corn with a watercress salad. The plate is teeming with color and perfectly balanced in flavor. Although seafood choices abound, the stars of the menu are undoubtedly the Seafood Risotto and Halibut served with a boniato puree, roasted corn, truffle, and tempura pickled chilis. Both dishes exemplify the high quality ingredients and immense attention to detail found at Aqimero.
Overall, Aqimero offers an exciting Latin menu in an upscale environment worthy of the Ritz-Carlton. Richard Sandoval’s culinary expressions transport diners to warmer lands far from Philadelphia filled with rich colors and deep flavors. In the massive, open space which Aqimero occupies, it would be easy for diners to feel lost in a stuffy, impersonal fine dining restaurant. Aqimero has created just the opposite environment; entrancing diners in an intimate oasis right in center city. Throughout the meal, one feels both the dedicated hospitality provided by top notch service and emotional connection to the courses on the table. The Latin menu and fine dining experience provides a fresh alternative to the usual Philadelphia steakhouses for the next date night or business dinner. So as the days get shorter and colder, keep Aqimero in mind as a means of escaping to a warmer land with exotic flavors and wonderful hospitality.