Richard Sandoval, the prolific celebrity chef attached to the new restaurant grand-opening this week in the Ritz-Carlton, knows almost nothing about Philadelphia.
The words Reading Terminal Market (“it’s like an OG food hall”) elicit a blank stare and the question, “So is it run by one company, or are there lots of different vendors?” His perception of the dining scene here is “Garces and Starr,” and while he knows both and even counts the former as a good friend, he has a hard time coming up with the name of a single one of their Philly food ventures.
But — and this is a big “but,” considering the prideful chip on our collective shoulders — there’s still reason to be excited about Sandoval’s first foray into our market.
With a gorgeously redesigned bar and lounge, a breezier dining area and a menu that’s got both novelty and deliciousness, Aqimero is a welcome addition to the Avenue of the Arts restaurant lineup. Though the food and drink are pricey (expected at a venue inside one of the fanciest hotels in the city), the atmosphere and menu make it a place that locals might actually visit.
Have a friend in town and want to show off the impressive facade of City Hall and the fountains in spiffy new Dilworth Park? Pop into their columned Beaux Arts neighbor for a drink and snack at the new raw bar, where you can continue the architectural wow tour. Aqimero’s predecessor, 10 Arts, had a giant 80s-looking circular wine rack in the center of the lobby, but it’s now completely gone, so instead of being dragged down by dark wood and multi-colored lighting, the eye is drawn up to the skylight at the top of the soaring masonry dome.
The redesign extends to the bar itself, which is no longer hidden behind that wine rack — “People would always ask if we even had a bar,” says a longtime Ritz-Carlton employee — and is also no longer flush against the back wall, so there’s more bar seating available. In the dining area, behind curtained columns to the left, seats are silver and blue, reflecting the “coastal Latin” theme of the menu.
Though other parts of the hotel were also just redone in a $24 million overhaul, Sandoval himself had a say in the look of the restaurant and bar components, he says.
“I brought in LW Design, which just did restaurants for me in Dubai,” says the chef, “I always have a say in the design. You can’t just build a place and then separately throw the food in. They have to go together.”
Of his 45 restaurants — yes, 45 — three are in the United Arab Emirates. He lends his name to six spots in Mexico, where he was born and raised by a father also in the hospitality business, plus three in Quatar, one in Tokyo and one in Serbia. Most Richard Sandoval operations are in the U.S., though, including locations in New York, Chicago, D.C., Miami, Atlanta, Scottsdale, Las Vegas and Denver, the city he currently calls home.
“Every single item on every menu in all my restaurants is tested by me; it goes through my ok and my palate,” Sandoval says. Whenever he visits a property, he makes sure to spend time on the line with his cooks, so he can teach them the intangibles that aren’t obvious on paper — like the fact that “recipes are only guidelines! You have to taste and adjust every time.”
Why’d it take him so long to get to Philly? He shrugs. With that many successful properties (many have been operating for more than 10 years), he’s in high demand, and “it takes finding a partner you trust, someone that works well with you.” The Ritz-Carlton Philadelphia owners turned out to be that kind of partner.
“Philadelphia reminds me of Denver when I first opened there 15 years ago,” he says. “Lots of potential.”
… well. While it’s obvious Sandoval has missed the hype about our increasingly-renowned dining scene, the food at Aqimero — slang for “here, now” — doesn’t suffer for it.
The raw bar also offers ceviche in both Mexican and Peruvian styles, as well as sushi rolls (the menu carries the unfortunate portmanteau “suviche bar,” but don’t let that stop you, the fish is top-notch). Lobster tacos sound fussy, but the avocado, black bean puree and arbol chile crema combine into a satisfying bite that’s almost like comfort food. Expensive comfort food at $18 an order, but comfort food nonetheless. Notably, they’re Sandoval’s personal favorite.
For $1 more, you can get wagyu tiradito, which matches lightly seared strips of marbled beef with a tangy ponzu sauce and spicy Thai chile. Though there’s a ballyhooed wood-fired grill behind plate-glass windows at one end of the dining room, the New York strip is pan seared, giving the beef a crisp finish that’s reminiscent of tuna and great with a truffle chimichurri (the decadent mushroom makes the $42 price tag understandable, if not entirely palatable).
There are lunchtime sandwiches that come with fries for $15 to $17, but for most locals Aqimero will likely become a special occasion spot.
That’s definitely better than 10 Arts, which, especially after chef Eric Ripert and Jen Carroll departed, Philadelphians left to the tourists who couldn’t be bothered to wander away from their hotel. Aqimero, on the other hand…has potential.