I used to wonder why anyone would dine in expensive themed chain restaurants like Aquarium, which teems with families shelling out for mediocre chicken ﬁngers and souvenir plush toys. Then I had kids of my own. Now, my minivan hurtles toward the 200,000-gallon saltwater tank at Opry Mills like a four-wheeled salmon with DVD player and leather seats migrating to the open sea.
One of four Aquarium stores owned by the Houston, Texas-based corporate leviathan Landry’s Restaurants, the Opry Mills location is conveniently packaged with Stingray Reef, a neighboring attraction where kids can feed and pat dozens of stinger-less rays that glide effortlessly and inﬁnitely around a long indoor pool.
By almost any measure, Aquarium is an impressive spectacle, anchored by a central underwater ecosystem of colorful coral and ﬁsh and embellished with smaller tanks built into the walls and ceiling. For adults, the glowing blue room might recall the ﬁctional nightclub that gets blown up in Mission Impossible, spilling Tom Cruise onto the Old Town Square in Prague. For kids, there appears to be only one relevant cultural reference—Finding Nemo—which younger guests invoke in high-pitched squeals each time a clown ﬁsh or Dory doppelgänger darts by.
In this visually stunning environment, no amount of polite signage can dissuade eager ﬁngers and noses from pressing against the thick glass. Consequently, the opening olfactory impression at Aquarium is the reassuringly hygienic scent of Windex.
Across the mall corridor, $4 buys admission to Stingray Reef, with an aquatic-themed carousel and all the poison dart frogs, piranhas and lizards you can view. The combination of the restaurant’s massive saltwater aquarium and the reef’s freshwater tanks and terrarium exhibits is captivating and, more importantly, enough edu-eater-tainment to ﬁll the better part of the day leading up to nap time.
Our ﬁrst visit to Aquarium was with a school ﬁeld trip. Upon arriving at 10 a.m., we put in our order for food, then embarked on a guided tour around the ﬂoor-to-ceiling serpentine tank at the core of the cavernous restaurant. A patient marine biologist introduced our Pre-K audience to schools of jacks, white- and black-tipped reef sharks, eels, nurse sharks, grouper and a particularly fetching guitar ﬁsh named Gibson. He then taught us to feed the rays next door by holding a shrimp between the ﬁngers in a closed ﬁst. Like muscular shadows, the giant rays glided toward our outstretched hands, surfacing with comically greedy sucking sounds that made our group roar with delight—and a modicum of terror. As the alien ﬁsh ﬂopped water onto our shoes and nibbled our knuckles, one bemused parent whispered dryly under her breath, “We welcome you, our new stingray overlords.”
Dizzy with laughter and inﬁnite carousel revolutions, we returned to our tables to get some chum of our own. Aquarium’s full-color, voluminous menu rambles through seafood, chicken, pasta, salads, sandwiches and beef—and far-ﬂung oceans, seas and bayous—with all the long-winded ambition of a Cheesecake Factory, T.G.I. Friday’s or California Pizza Kitchen. If you choose to compare Aquarium’s food to its big-chain competition, you might be disappointed. If, instead, you compare the cuisine to, say, the snack bar at virtually any children’s attraction you can think of, you will likely concede that Aquarium serves the best—albeit most expensive—meal you’ve ever eaten on a class ﬁeld trip.
We hit a few of the so-called favorites, which the menu designates with little starﬁsh. For the most part, our food was fresh and attractive, garnished with colorful vegetables and sides. Chicken pasta salad was generously laden with crisp lettuce, penne coated with pesto, tender grilled strips of breast, feta cheese, bacon and pine nuts. Fish tacos were colorfully assembled with grilled limes, strips of jicama and fresh cilantro, but the meal drowned in fried ﬁsh, without enough moisture or ﬂavor to break up the bready monotony of batter and thick double-layered corn tortillas.
The Castaway Combo, which we ordered as an appetizer, overﬂowed with almost enough fried calamari, fried cheese, bruschetta and hot crab-and-shrimp dip to feed two adults and four small children. Unfortunately, the creamy dip had little ﬂavor beyond peppery heat, and the attractive bruschetta topping of diced tomatoes with a drizzle of balsamic reduction was oddly sweet. The majority of the platter went back to the kitchen uneaten, with the exception of the fried cheese—which the children devoured like sharks—and a few overly breaded calamari that we were able to pass off as chicken ﬁngers.
Next time we go—and there will inevitably be a next time—we’ll probably order the combination of grilled mahi mahi and shrimp, which delivered tender, moist seafood with a light citrus glaze and a peppery kick. Plated with a ﬂuffy bed of rice studded with scallions and diced carrots and a selection of steamed carrots and zucchini, the meal was refreshingly understated.
There’s also a strong likelihood that we’ll order a po’boy. We watched someone eat one, and it looked terriﬁc, with loads of cornmeal-coated fried oysters and tartar sauce on a large, soft grilled French loaf.
While we may not have been bowled over by the food, we remarked on the consistently friendly and patient service, particularly the ability of waitstaff to deliver oversize trays of food while dodging the children scuttling between tank and table. We also noticed that, as loud and excited as our children were in their booths, their noise seemed to dissolve into the dark grottoes, effectively sparing other guests from their shrill excitement.
But for a place that so successfully caters to families and children, Aquarium has an unlikely shortcoming: lame chicken ﬁngers. On two visits, the majority of our kids rejected the pale, dry strips, leaving a red tide of uneaten fried food beached across the tables.
Then again, who were we kidding? Did we actually think chicken ﬁngers could compete with live sharks and rays? No. (Nor did we come to a mega-mall in a landlocked state for an exemplary seafood feast.) It would be hard to ﬁnd anything to command the attention of children while a scuba diver waves at them with one hand and feeds sharks with the other. So maybe they left a little hungry and we shelled out for some food that went uneaten. But everybody left satisﬁed and, most importantly, returned home with an excellent ﬁsh tale.
Aquarium opens daily at 11 a.m. and closes at 9:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 8 p.m. Sunday. Aquarium offers educational programs and birthday parties led by a marine biologist.
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