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Grace Dent reviews Aqua Nueva: ‘I regretted not wearing my orienteering headtorch to assist with the menu’

The last time I set foot in the cavernous Aqua complex on Argyll Street, W1, was six years ago, when it was regularly pimped out as an event space. Whenever the music industry wanted to burn hundreds of thousands of pounds cosying up to an artist, a wholly efficient way to be non-efficient was to hire all five floors then offer an ‘intimate’ gig, which in actuality was a solipsistic bun fight where all 937 names on the guest list were certain that they were VVIPs and needed upgraded wristbands.

I recall a very long evening trapped inside Aqua waiting for Alicia Keys to honk through ‘Empire State of Mind’, which she certainly did — but not before hundreds of us were chivvied off on a tour of the building, up stairs, down stairs, through tunnels and in and out of various bars and banquet areas. During this period of captivity, I transgressed through many emotional stages: gratitude, joy, listlessness, disorientation; then, finally, a quiet acceptance that I might never see Leyton again.

Nowadays, this colossal ark of a venue is split into various sections — cocktail bar, Japanese and tapas — and has recently been titivated, primped and relaunched. Décor-wise, Aqua Spirit, the bar area, is prettily opulent. It’s the sort of place out-of-towners might breathlessly call ‘swanky’ on TripAdvisor after drinking a lychee martini prior to viewing Memphis the Musical starring Matt Cardle. The main clientele when I visited were inebriated office-worker lad packs who ‘banter’ at you semi-offensively in the lifts and flurries of intense twenty-something Essex husband-hunters in Lipsy frocks, sitting behind champagne buckets scowling at their phones.

The bar staff have adjusted to their audience with entrenched blasé-ness. I ordered a glass of Picpoul de Pinet, which arrived warm, was sent back politely, then replaced nonsensically by two glasses of the same warm wine. At this point, I gave up and decided to let the evening’s events envelope me.

Aqua Nueva, the tapas area — replete with dark leather horseshoe-shaped banquettes — is also rather beautiful. Or at least it is according to photographs, because it is so dark inside I regretted not wearing my orienteering headtorch to assist with the menu. It’s the perfect place to take a Tinder date if you look very little like your profile photo and worry that a more strongly lit venue would reveal that, yes, you do own your own hair, but at one point it belonged to a person in Peru.

‘I hope you are enjoying this wonderful table!’ enthused the manager, regardless of the fact that we were sitting almost in pitch dark at a table with legs so wonky we were gripping on to steady it like séance-goers mid-poltergeist visitation.

The concept is tapas with a twist, or very fancily hewn tapas delivered to one’s table with plentiful explanation and accentuated flourish. We ordered braised lamb loin with apricot — it tasted exactly as it sounds — then matured rib-eye with pickled green paprika, plus a serving of grilled Iberian pork with aïoli potatoes. Portions are abstemious, delicately presented and not overwhelmingly delicious.

The confit beetroot with deep-fried Monte Enebro cheese and liquorice was ultra wafer-thin slices of beet topped with crouton-like fromage clusters. A soft (ie: translucent) poached egg appeared on a thin bed of crunchy chorizo, pancetta and potato fragments. Poked twice, it turned into a tepid eggy gloop.

I am led to wonder if there is any real necessity for OTT tapas, having flown off a few days later to Palma’s Old Town in Mallorca where a bowl of humble jamón croquettes, some garlic-laden gambas and generous amounts of Pedro Ximénez hit the spot beautifully. Still, Aqua was packed with the sort of young people who think eating is cheating. On a Friday night in June, it is their West End — and they’re bloody welcome to it.

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Aqua Nueva

1 lamb loin £12.50

1 rib-eye £12

1 Iberian pork £9.50

1 confit beetroot £7

1 asparagus £7.50

1 soft-cooked egg  £6

1 cheese selection £10

1 arroz leche £6.50

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Drinks £59

TOTAL £130

30 Argyll Street, W1 (020 7478 0540;


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