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Behind the Line - What happens at AquaKnox stays at AquaKnox
Las Vegas restaurant offers global seafood ‘playground’
By Lauren Kramer
January 01, 2014
White-tablecloth restaurants are often challenged with an air of pretentiousness that can be off-putting to many diners. At AquaKnox, one of Las Vegas’ popular seafood restaurants, GM Rob Menefee wants guests to have high expectations of a dinner experience. So there’s a lax dress code at AquaKnox.
“This is Vegas, after all — so we just ask people to wear clothes in the first place,” he quips.
Located inside The Venetian resort, hotel and casino on Las Vegas Boulevard, the 250-seat restaurant, owned by San Francisco-based Tavistock Restaurants, opened in August 2003 with a focus on global seafood. The menu is dotted with seafood of international origins: John Dory from New Zealand, albacore tuna and opah from Hawaii, red shrimp from Argentina, Australian barramundi, Brazilian lobster tails, Brittany blue lobsters from France and blue prawns from Baja California, Mexico.
“Chef Steve Aguglia is looking for the cleanest, most sustainable species in the world,” Menefee says. “He has great ethics and morals, which is a rarity to find in Vegas.”
Korean-born Aguglia came to the United States as a child, working in a hospital cafeteria for his first job and eventually landing at the French restaurant Brasserie in Las Vegas, where he worked his way up to sous chef. He started out at AquaKnox as a line cook, becoming executive chef in April 2013 at the age of 32.
The restaurant has always had a commitment to sustainability, Aguglia says. “With Supreme Lobster, for example, one of our seafood purveyors, we know the VP Andrew Goodman, and we’re able to source out the best product. We always ask, ‘how sustainable is it?’ If it’s farmed, is the fish given organic feed? We want to know so we can make sure we’re sourcing from the right places.”
The menu includes farmed king salmon from New Zealand, farmed barramundi from Australia, farmed Welsh sea bass and Grenada’s Almas Ara Naccarii caviar, one of the few sustainable caviars in the world, Aguglia says.
“Sturgeon aquaculture is proving to be a terrific alternative as some wild species of sturgeon are on the brink of extinction,” Menefee says. “The benefits of this sustainable caviar is they actually assist in replenishing wild stocks, no damage to livable resources, the feed that the sturgeon consume is made from natural and sustainable products and when the eggs are harvested, 100 percent of the sturgeon is utilized for its meat, skin and bones.”
The staff of 110 at AquaKnox is expected to know these details, and Aguglia leads a trip to a seafood market or warehouse four times a year, so staff can see different species and be educated by fishmongers.
“John Sands, Supreme Lobster’s director of purchasing, speaks to our staff about the importance of procuring healthy species of seafood from around the world, educating them on using pristine proteins that have minimal mercury content and the importance of practicing sustainability on the restaurant level and the global level,” says Menefee. “The knowledge, sights, sounds and smells are passed along to our guests, and those stories elevate their dining experience. For the first time ever we have many guests that stop and think about the importance of where they get their seafood.”
During National Seafood Month in October, guests are informed of the latitude and longitude where a particular species was caught, the methylmercury levels and the boat’s name.
“We can show them on a map where their seafood was caught and it’s so impactful,” he adds. “You see that ‘aha moment’ as guests start to think about where their food is from.”
Aguglia has also partnered with local vendors close to Las Vegas to source fruit and vegetables. Desert Bloom Eco Farm, a 45-minute drive away, supplies the restaurant with shishito peppers, lemon verbena, basil, cherry tomatoes and eggplant, a fact that’s promoted on AquaKnox’s Facebook page. “The Venetian is promoting it too, which makes us realize we’re doing something that’s impactful,” Menefee says.
Back in the kitchen, Aguglia has added Asian influences to some AquaKnox dishes. The king salmon is served on forbidden black fried rice with shishito peppers and carrot-miso sauce. “We cook it on our mesquite grill, serve it medium rare and glaze it with a kabayaki sauce,” he says. The tuna tartare “Gangnam style” is delivered with a Korean chili vinaigrette and tempura crunch.
“As long as you can tell your guests what they’re about to get, they respect it more,” says Menefee. “In the middle of the desert, for example, we’re serving some of the best oysters in the world for freshness. When it comes to great food there are some things you cannot put a price on.”
The average guest check at AquaKnox ranges from $75 in non-peak times of year to $115 at peak times in July and December. The dinner-only restaurant is projected to do close to $9 million in revenue for 2013, with close to one-third of that generated by private events. “The entire restaurant gets bought out frequently, which means we’re executing great food for a party of up to 500 people on a regular basis,” he says. “To be able to generate that kind of revenue is pretty powerful.”
Menefee does a comparative analysis twice a year to check his prices against those of competing seafood restaurants in the area and says AquaKnox boasts one of the lower-tier price points. “We don’t charge a premium as much as we should — for example our crab cakes are far lower in price than most other restaurants in our spectrum and some other restaurants charge between $4 and $8 more for the same scallop entrée than we do.”
With a reputation as one of Vegas’ hottest seafood restaurants, people are expecting perfection at AquaKnox, he adds. “It means we can’t have an off-night or an off-table. If you’re a connoisseur of seafood, this restaurant is a great playground.”Contributing Editor Lauren Kramer lives in Richmond, British Columbia