A reputation of well-executed food using local ingredients combined with picturesque views of White Bear Lake has made Acqua a popular dining destination in the northern metro area since it first opened its doors in 2009. Looking to expand upon the success and popularity of its original restaurant, Acqua recently celebrated the opening of their second location along the shores of Forest Lake.
The two restaurants have decidedly different atmospheres. The original location in White Bear Lake (above, top) is dressed in warmer wooden and brass tones. The chairs gave a sense of patio seating with extra cushioning. The darker tones would likely give way to a more intimate feel for diners once the sun had set. On the other hand, the Forest Lake location (above, bottom) was far more open and bright. Large windows on various sides of the main dining room filled the space with light. The seating felt sturdier and more apropos for a restaurant, but the pattern of the booths did feel a tad dated.
Menus at both locations were quite similar. Both offered a wide variety of wines and specialty cocktails. The overall formats of the menus were identical, with just a few variations. Both locations offered a 3-course tasting — which drew selections from the regular menu — with a choice of starter, entree, and dessert. The tasting menu in White Bear Lake was more expensive ($40 vs. $30 in Forest Lake) but the selection of entrees seemed to provide more substantial and refined choices. Despite the similarity of the menus and styles of food, our experience from one location to the other was dramatically different.
Our first experience with Acqua was in the new Forest Lake location, which opened four weeks ago. Both locations offered house bread (above, top left) that was warm and soft on the inside while crisp on the outside. The Crema di Funghi (above, top right, $10 a la carte), while nicely presented, was overly salty. The flavors of parsley and Hen-of-the-Woods mushrooms were masked by the level of saltiness. Salt and cream were the prominent flavors, which made the soup reminiscent of canned cream-of-mushroom.
The Mela Parmigiano (above, bottom left, $10 a la carte) was a salad of apples, shaved fennel, Parmesan-Reggiano, and chive. The mild licorice-like taste of fennel was non-existent. The Parmesan-Reggiano added a slight balance of salt to the salad, but the juices from the apple eventually mixed with the cheese and created a mushy texture. Since the apple comprised the vast majority of the plate, the salad ultimately tasted solely of apple with the occasional burst of cheese.
The most successful starter we sampled in Forest Lake was the Pettine e Foie Gras (above, bottom right, $15). The cooking of the scallop and foie gras was excellent, and the flavor combination of seafood, offal, and the wine reduction was varied and delicious. However, the experience suffered once again due to over-salting.
The strong opening courses of our visit to the White Bear Lake location stood in contrast to the lackluster experience we had in Forest Lake. An order of Mitili (above, left, $15) presented us with a delightful bowl of large Prince Edward Island mussels in a broth of garlic, onion, Parmesan, and cream. The mussels were aromatic and carried with them a slight sweetness along with a sense of the sea. The broth was rich, creamy, and full of flavor. We troubled our server for additional orders of bread to enjoy the remainder of the broth long after the mussels were gone.
The second plate was a salad of roasted beets, greens, and fried lemon-honey goat cheese. While the effect of roasting the beets was not felt on the palate, they still contributed a welcomed sweetness to the salad. The slight bitterness of the greens worked to balance the dish. The real star of this plate was fried goat cheese, which was simultaneously rich and sweet with a pop of citrus. Eating all the components together highlighted the freshness and balance of flavor in the salad.
The contrast between the two locations would be felt again in our entree course. The roasted half chicken with mushroom risotto and pan sauce (above, top left, $20 a la carte at Forest Lake) featured a well-cooked portion of chicken. The chicken was tender and moist, even in the breast sections. The pan sauce provided additional savoriness along with a concentration of poultry flavor. Sadly, the risotto’s execution worked against the other components of the dish. The risotto was unevenly prepared, with varying levels of textures from mushy to hard. The risotto was also bland and severely under seasoned.
Our second entree in Forest Lake was a bowl of spaghetti and tiger shrimp (above, top right, $20 a la carte) with tomato, white wine, garlic, lemon, and Parmesan. The dish had an overwhelmingly strong presence of acidity from the combination of tomato, lemon, and white wine that overpowered all other flavors. The proper cooking of the shrimp became moot in the presence of an otherwise single-note dish. This would end up being the least successful dish we sampled: one that we could not bring ourselves to finish.
Turning back to White Bear Lake, we once again experienced something entirely different. The first entree for this visit was the evening’s special, a beautifully grilled piece of Scottish Salmon (above, bottom left, $28). The fatty quality of the salmon was preserved through proper execution, which allowed the flavor of the fish to shine. The salmon was accompanied by a crispy risotto cake, sun-dried tomatoes, artichoke, and a lemon oil sauce. The acidity and sharpness of the lemon and sun-dried tomato smartly balanced the fat of the salmon. This was by far our favorite dish between both visits.
The Ossobuco (above, bottom right, $26) is a mainstay of Acqua’s menu and one of the more popular entrees. The generous portion of braised pork shank was served alongside white sweet potato puree and a port demi-glace. The pork shank was braised perfectly. The pork fell from the bone with ease and had a fatty, tender texture. The savoriness of the pork shank was enhanced by the port demi-glace, while the potato puree provided a layer of sweetness to round out each bite.
Both locations have the same small selection of desserts. In Forest Lake we had started with the chocolate hazelnut semifreddo with dark chocolate ganache (above, top left, $8). The dessert was dense and rich; the slight nutty flavor of hazelnut matched well with the bitterness of chocolate. However, we did find the dessert to be a bit one-note. The chocolate souffle with toasted marshmallow and graham cracker ice cream (above, bottom, $8) was both the most interesting and the most flavorful dessert we had sampled. While the souffle was on the dry side, perhaps overcooked, it did have an intense chocolate flavor that matched well with the rest of the plate. The toasted marshmallow “sauce” and graham cracker ice cream provided subtle sweetness alongside an underlying nutty flavor.
The butterscotch budino with caramel (above, top right, $8) was the end to our meal in White Bear Lake. It did not have as firm a consistency as we had expected. In fact, it was quite runny and did not have any other textural contrast. Texture aside, we did enjoy the sweet and salty combination of butterscotch and caramel.
It is important to note that many of these dishes exist on both location’s menus. Through our experience dining in both restaurants, it was apparent that the new Forest Lake location and its staff were in need of more time to practice the correct flow of timing, service, and execution from the kitchen.
In the end both locations offer an experience of contemporary Italian cuisine in a comfortable and relaxed setting. Now that winter is behind us, the lakeside atmosphere and views of both locations will soon provide diners with a beautiful backdrop to enjoy a meal. It was easy for us to see why Acqua’s original location in White Bear Lake has enjoyed success since its opening; The food there is well-executed, full of flavor, and interesting. While we did not enjoy our visit to Forest Lake due to the great inconsistency of the food, it is our hope and belief that it will one day mirror White Bear Lake’s success.
Contemporary Italian in White Bear Lake and Forest Lake, MN
White Bear Lake: Rating: (Good) | Forest Lake: Rating: (Notable)
Acqua White Bear Lake
White Bear Lake, MN 55110
HOURS: Tuesday to Sundays, 5:00pm-10:00pm
Acqua Forest Lake
Forest Lake, MN 55025
HOURS: Tues. to Fri., 5pm-10pm; Sat., 11am-10pm; Sun., 11am-9pm
OWNERS / CHEF: Daren Close, Nicole Whetzel, Chris Walen / Chris Walen
RESERVATIONS / RECOMMENDED: Yes / Yes
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Limited / Limited
ENTRÉE RANGE: $20-$35