REVIEW: When La. Seafood Boil Meets Thai Restaurateurs from New York

Top neck clam boil (Image: Howard Portnoy)

When the team behind the Thai restaurant Thep (reviewed here) made a trip down to The Big Easy and bayou country, little did they suspect they’d come back smitten. They were especially enamored of Louisiana seafood boil, and on their return to the Big Apple, they initiated plans for a super-casual restaurant in Hell’s Kitchen dedicated to the genre. The result is Aqua Boil, which opened in November.

When you are first seated, you are handed a menu and a kit in which you will find a lobster bib, a pair of latex gloves, and plastic cutlery. The first of these advises “Le’ts get messy.” Take that as a warning as much as an invitation. Louisiana seafood boil is indeed a messy affair, with much extricating of seafood from shells dripping with sauce. Unless you plan on wearing your dinner home, you are advised to use the bib and gloves.

Speaking of sauce, I have two words: garlic butter. Of the three sauces available with your boil, the garlic butter is far and away the most compelling — addictive almost. It is thick, creamy, and contains enough minced garlic to scare off an army of vampires.

Before you get to slurping, you may want to order a first course. Toward that end I recommend the gumbo, realized here as a thick soup rife with morsels of chicken, discs of andouille and okra, and a lone head-on shrimp — a preview of things to come. The cod cake could use more cod or a name change to potato croquette. It’s good, if perhaps not what you were expecting.

Left: Gumbo; right: Cod Cake (Images: Howard Portnoy)

All of what you have been doing up this point is seafood boil foreplay. Here comes your waitress with a plastic bag, the top of which she rolls back to reveal your fragrant top neck clam boil: plump, tender clams, halves of a steamed skin-on potato, and a section of an ear of sweet corn, all immersed, if you are wise, in that intoxicating garlic butter.

Several regions on the eastern seaboard feature seafood boils, but what distinguishes Louisiana’s from the rest is the presence of fresh crawfish. Here, the availability of fresh mud bugs is limited to the warmer months, though you can approximate that experience with the sweet and meaty head-on shrimp. These take extremely well to the Cajun mix listed among the sauce alternatives, the spice level of which can be adjusted anywhere on a spectrum ranging from “mild” to “raging hot.” Venture beyond “spicy” at your own peril.

Head-on Shrimp (Image: Howard Portnoy)

Dessert is limited to two choices, flan and vanilla ice cream.

The rusticity of the food is happily matched only slightly by the surroundings. You sit at tables covered in the de rigueur paper, but the surfaces underneath are of shiny new butcher block rather than rough-hewn weathered wood. The walls of the brightly lighted room are spiffily trimmed in red and blue, with one dominated by the bar, another by a handsome rendering of an octopus mid-swim. If just once you’d like to visit a casual seafood restaurant that eschews nautical clichés — oars, life preservers, tiny anchors — you’ll have to keep searching.

On weekends, Aqua Boil offers a brunch between noon and 4 P.M. that includes a 90-minute “bottomless” seafood boil option and unlimited mimosas, Bellinis and Prosecco for $19.95 a head.

Price range for dinner: Starters—$7 to $22, mains—$17 to $49 (the latter for combos), desserts—$7.

Aqua Boil, 750 Ninth Avenue (bet. 50th and 51st St.), 212-464-7428, is open seven days for dinner, and weekends for brunch.