If you’ve ventured out into the smoky air to grab a bite in Ashland, you might have noticed that Aqua, a new pub owned by Inder Kaur, set up shop earlier this month in the space of one of your old haunts: Caldera Tap House on Water Street.
Launching Aqua was serendipitous for Kaur, who sought to start a pub after purchasing TAJ, the Indian restaurant situated upstairs, in 2016.
According to Jim Mills, head brewer and owner of Caldera Brewing Company, the local firm closed down Caldera Tap House to focus on its restaurant at the brewery, located on the south end of town on Clover Lane.
When the tap-house owners decided to tap out, the new opportunity just fell into Kaur’s lap.
Aqua maintains roughly the same seating arrangement as the former tap house. The large number of taps on the wall, a remnant from the previous owners, now include Caldera brews along with a variety of Oregon and California brands, including Crux, Ecliptic and Elysian. In addition, there are several ciders and kombuchas and a handful of wines, including Prosecco from Ruffino in the Tuscany region of Italy and a tempranillo from Troon Vineyards in Grants Pass.
Stepping into the Aqua, one might think they’re still at Caldera Tap House, but its purple walls have been swapped out for blue, undergoing an underwater transformation. You won’t find the sort of delicious Indian fare you’d find upstairs, but instead a gastropub menu, replete with burgers, wraps, sandwiches and wings. In other words, locals won’t be left with a void when it comes to the style of food offered.
Patrons might find themselves in a similar, but perhaps more relaxing environment, as well, given that Aqua’s chef and four other staff members are holdovers from the Tap House. Kaur invited former employees to stay on when she took over and opened the restaurant.
It may be its openness that made me feel at home when dining there with my wife and baby. I ordered the house cheeseburger to get an idea of how the new restaurant serves something so iconic, while my wife, Danielle, ordered a halibut burger and garlic-Parmesan polenta to split with baby Niko.
I was delighted by just how well cooked my medium-rare hamburger was, with the perfect amount of pink in the middle of a large 8-ounce patty. There are only a few burgers in town that I find cooked this well, one of which is at Caldera Brewing. Fans of the old tap house can rest assured that their favorite burgers are in good hands.
The breaded halibut sandwich also was perfectly cooked, with each bite revealing tender white flakes and the lemon dill aoli adding a refreshing bite. Surprisingly, perhaps, the polenta was the most delicious dish of the three. Infused with garlic and Parmesan and served with sautéed veggies and a balsamic reduction, it formed into something creamy, savory and addictive. We could easily return to Aqua for the polenta alone.
This dish was concocted by the head chef, and for Kaur it was the first time she’d ever tried polenta. Afterwards, she, too, became addicted. The menu will keep evolving, after Aqua’s cooks firmly establish the root dishes, as will the restaurant itself, which will begin hosting music this Saturday. They will start with jazz, but the patrons and staff will ultimately help guide Aqua’s direction.
This reflects Kaur’s larger philosophy of running a business. The menu items are the result of the trust and faith that Kaur has put in her team, which she says work together to make just about every decision for the restaurant. They all decide the menu items together, including the beers and cocktails, resulting in a community-run restaurant.
This community is meant to spill out of the kitchen and into the larger dining area, which Kaur hopes will serve as a place for locals to relax, watch sports on one of the pub’s four TVs — including one enormous set above a fireplace on the front wall — and connect with one another.
If Kaur’s goals are fulfilled, Aqua could serve as an anchor for the community.