Restaurant review: Aqua Eight, Ipswich: "Do not miss out on the charcoal grilled wasabi steak"
PUBLISHED: 18:59 21 October 2019
Our food and drink editor visited this long-standing favourite Ipswich restaurant to see if it still cuts the mustard.
Shockingly I realised recently we've never actually reviewed this Pan-Asian eatery and bar, so off we popped on a rainy, grim Thursday night.
This spot has a band of regular followers, and often it's hard to grab a table at weekends so booking is recommended. It's clear to see why it's so popular. The décor is pretty cool (although the blue lighting made my hubby look like a Smurf at our table), there's a decent offering at the bar, and the atmosphere is buzzing enough to make you feel part of the 'hip' crowd.
Choosing what to eat is always tricky so we left it to the kitchen, selecting the chef's signature set four-course menu….got to love a midweek surprise.
First out was an attractive platter of small eats and sauces (a Chinese vinegar dip, sweet chilli and a citrusy hot Vietnamese dressing). Grilled pork dumplings, all juicy and lightly flavoured, were the star of the party for me - like comforting edible pillows of pork. They weren't overwhelmed by salt, garlic, or seasonings. Just downright tasty. The chicken satay was a firebomb. I don't think I've ever had one quite as volcanic as Aqua Eight's, however the sauce was silky, nutty and rounded in flavour despite its heat. My husband's star dish was the crispy Vietnamese chicken rolls. Puffy and light, they were stuffed to the brim with shredded chicken, vegetables and glass noodles, and had an umami essence of what tasted like nam pla in the mix. Sesame prawn toasts were ungreasy, and topped with a generous garnish of moreish crispy 'seaweed' which I can never get enough of.
My only criticism would be of the salt and pepper squid. While the flavour was spot-on and the squid succulent, there was nothing crispy about it. Batter fell away from each bite and was much too soft. A shame but not a deal-breaker.
Already starting to feel full, the intermediate course of crispy duck arrived and was expertly de-boned and shredded at the table, served with the usual garnishes and condiments. Gnarly with burnished aromatic skin, this did what it says on the tin and was as good as we've had anywhere.
Now we really were getting full. But a parade of main courses was placed on hot plates in front of us.
The katsu chicken in yuzu sauce wasn't really for us - you can't win 'em all. This is purely down to personal taste, as we're not huge fans of sweet sauces. However the chicken was golden all over, still juicy in the middle and piping hot. So big thumbs up if this is your bag.
We fought over the Alaskan black cod with miso. Served 'fine dining' style in a spare manner, with a simple garnish and droplets of sweet, salty miso, the fish initially looked dry to me under its glaze, but a bit of pressure under a fork allowed the cod to fall apart into meaty, tender flakes. It could not have been cooked better. It was sensational with the garlicky fronds of sprouting broccoli served as a side dish.
Our final main course (there was a big covered dish of rice too) was a newer dish from Aqua Eight of wasabi steak in soy and lemongrass cooked over a Japanese style robata charcoal grill. The smokiness the chef managed to inject into the steak using this method was a triumph, and the salinity of the sticky 'gravy' perked up by a sprinkling of fried lemongrass, riffed off the meat in harmony. Cracking.
After ordering coffee, chef's selection of desserts arrived, although we had no idea what they were as the waiter didn't tell us! Looked pretty though. A medley of colourful sliced fruits, something in pastry and some things in glass cups. After enquiring what they were, and sampling the morsels we were left a bit underwhelmed to be honest. Desserts are not a huge part of Asian culture aside from at big celebrations, so I think it would be unfair to expect them to bring showstoppers to the table. Having said that, if you're going to offer puds they do need to be done right. We had plainish cream topped with caramel sauce, banana in filo (which was very yummy indeed and what I'd suggest ordering if you can squeeze in dessert here) and mango with sago topped with cream. The mango with sago wasn't unpleasant but lacked a bit of sparkle. A squeeze of lemon or lime to brighten it would have made all the difference.
A lot of thought clearly went into the design of the restaurant, which is modern in aesthetics with a bold lighting scheme. It really lends itself to 'date night' but was filled with groups of friends having a good time.
Light, aromatic, unoaked wines work beautifully with Asian food and we were in love at first sip with our bottle of 2018 Pinot Gris Réserve, Cave de Hunawihr, Alsace, France. Soft, buttery and dry, it had a flinty minerality on the nose but on the palate gave over the rich mouth-filling ripeness of succulent peaches and nectarines. To finish, a hint of biscuit and toast. I'll be buying this for home! The entire drinks list is very impressive including a huge selection of wines, every kind of spirit (plenty of gins) and both draught and craft lagers from Suffolk, Europe and Asia.
We ordered coffee at the end of the meal (not the usual Asian thing but they did ask). While the Americano was fine, my latte was essentially a glass of hot steaming milk with a drop of coffee on top. I don't think it'd even count as a macchiato so a bit of training needed there.
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This was a mixed bag. The lady who served us intermittently was clearly a pro and knew the restaurant and its menu inside out. The other staff who served us were very friendly indeed and really kind but could, I think, do with a little extra training to match the food and drink. The table was rather messy throughout our meal and wasn't cleared down. And some of the dishes were either not described correctly by staff or could not be explained/described at all. Then there's that coffee. I'm sure with a little bit of attention to detail they could be great. On the plus side Aqua Eight has thought of the little things. Toothpicks at the table. Heated plates. Cutlery already on the table so the chopstick-averse don't have the embarrassment of asking for it.
Probably the best-smelling loos I've frequented in a while - there was an enticing aroma of coconut wafting about in the ladies (I can't speak for the blokes' loos). Nicely fitted out. Swanky sinks. Deliciously-scented soap and hand lotion. And spotlessly clean too.
They don't have a car park. Park nearby at the Buttermarket.
The cod. It was dreamy.
Chef's selection menu, £38.50 per person. Wine £29 for the bottle.
There are some steep(ish) stairs to climb to the dining area and I couldn't see a lift. I imagine if you had accessibility needs they may be able to feed you downstairs but I would call and check ahead first.
Despite a few glitches the shine hasn't come off Aqua Eight for me. I could quite happily sit in there for hours working my way through the small eats and cocktail list!