Water Grill

The city’s most esteemed seafood house changes course with the times

Photographs by Andrea Bricco

King’s Seafood Company has perfected a theatrical version of the seafaring dining hall. Located in Southern California, Arizona, and Nevada, its dozen King’s Fish House restaurants let you sit under lazily spinning fans in a room hung with taxidermied trophy fish and placards bearing fisherman jokes as if you’re in some camera-ready backwater or on a pier or a bend in the bayou—lots of settings that aren’t, to name one, the Commons at Calabasas. In this world, all is kettle-to-skillet abundance. The chowder has a lovely thickness for the Vermont soda crackers to recline on, the specials are invariably crusted with nuts, and the oyster shooters go down easy.

King’s Seafood aimed for a different effect when it opened Water Grill downtown in 1989. This was the flagship, an elegant destination on the ground floor of the beaux arts Pacific Center, where the sommelier could pull the cork on a bottle of Corton and talented chefs—Providence’s Michael Cimarusti and M.B. Post’s David LeFevre both cooked here—were encouraged to blaze out beyond the house style, obsessively using tweezers to add microgreens to sashimi. But the restaurant was showing its age. The wide stone columns that once appeared so stately began to give the space a cavernlike feel, while the modernist murals, heavy linens, and peach palette signaled a notion of bygone luxury.

An update was in order. In its $1.5 million effort King’s Seafood has drawn a giant vacuum over the casual culinary spots that dominate the scene. It’s added zeitgeisty touches like rag napkins, subway tiles, and repurposed bottles that serve as decanters. A barkeep in a candy-striped shirt and black waistcoat (the de rigueur bar cloth in his jeans back pocket) mixes cocktails and fills pitchers of beer for the business types who eat lobster rolls at the bar. Yes, pitchers of beer at Water Grill. Lest things seem too publike, there’s plenty of well-stuffed leather seating, while the profusion of fishing poles arranged on the dark mural looks more art installation than maritime kitsch.

To bring the cooking along with the interior, the company has hired Damon Gordon, an energetic Brit who sports a mop of hair above a high fade. Trained in England at the Roux brothers’ esteemed Waterside Inn before spending a decade at various Ian Schra-ger hotels, he’s got classical chops but a contemporary outlook. You see that dichotomy in dishes like the Dover sole, which Gordon bathes in a frothy lemon-honed butter sauce that’s just been tipped from the pan, and in the rustic Virginia black bass that he adorns with sprigs of thyme, a mod approach that places the ingredient front and center. Liberated, integrated—I’m not sure what the right word is, but the new formula works. I loved the old Water Grill, but the venue suffered from a structural tension, its refined elements butting up against the reality that a lot of customers weren’t there for the room; they were there to suck down a dozen Skookums at the brass rail.

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Gordon cooks with a quiet authority. For his chowder he renders bacon and then mixes in onions, thinly sliced fingerlings, and a clam stock before adding whole clams in their shells. Lighter than the other versions I’ve had here, it somehow conveys the dish’s long history, back to when it was a simple fisherman’s stew. Strands of colored seaweed give phenomenal depth to the miso soup. Even his fish tacos—a risky gambit for an Ips-wich native working in America’s taco capital—are good, the clean flavor of the cod contrasting with julienned jicama and red cabbage as a salsa of blistered tomatoes and Fresno chiles drips from the corn tortillas. Gordon brings the same subtlety to the fish-and-chips, the hunk of cod fried in a beer batter. The sauce in a big platter of Manila clams gets reduced enough to allow you to use the shells to scoop up tiles of leek greens and bacon. I ordered it with a ten-ounce pour of Devotion Belgian Pale Ale (brewed in San Diego County’s San Marcos), and it was magical, the hoppiness of the beer teasing out every nuance of the sauce.

The oysters at Water Grill are still the best in the city. When you think about it, the hyperspecific way we talk about the provenance of food these days has been part of the conversation about bivalves from the beginning. There’s a meatiness to the Rincón de Ballenas from Baja that can be tamed with a bit of horseradish. Intensify the crystallinity of the Hama Hama from Puget Sound with diced shallot. Nothing more than a knifepoint of cocktail sauce is needed to unleash the minerality of the Stingray from Chesapeake Bay. The oysters are available individually for less than three bucks a pop, too, which means you can compare salinity, clarity, and a host of halftones for less than $10.

Just don’t come here expecting a bargain. Despite the more laid-back touches, a meal adds up fast. After all, Water Grill remains an ingredient-driven restaurant that has the means to provision its kitchen with some of the world’s best fish. But that m.o. is not enough to keep a few of the dishes afloat. In fact, the skate wing that arrived at my table smelled so badly of ammonia that I had to send it back. The five shrimp that form the centerpiece of the $28 shrimp Louie salad are pristine specimens, but the rest of the dish—two leaves of butter lettuce, an avocado spear, and a cold rasher—doesn’t live up to the cost. In contrast, the shrimp and crab Louie at King’s Fish House is loaded with olives, carrots, and cucumbers yet goes for half the price. And Water Grill’s lobster roll clocks in at $32, which kind of misses the point. Slinging a fine ingredient into a bun is supposed to be a delicious and democratizing takedown, not an opportunity to charge more.

This is a case where keeping the restaurant from going too casual would actually help: A little all-around pampering allows you to forget the prices. On certain evenings the bartender puts out cutlery and a pewter bucket for shells; with the arrival of salted sourdough rolls, I’ve felt as if I’ve been spoiled by the kind of direct, no-frills service perfected in the American bar and grill. On other nights, though, the rolls never materialize, and the food comes before the cutlery. If this were Red Lobster, I’d be fine with it, but I’m less fine with it at a place where I have to pay a $3 supplement for the escabeche sauce to go with my $40 loup de mer.

But what a loup de mer it is. In fact, one of my favorite things at the new Water Grill is the whole fish—the catch of the day prepared as simply as possible. Butterflied and wood roasted, the fish is an austere beauty needing only a squeeze of lemon, which has itself been browned in the oven, to accentuate the purity of the flesh. (OK, the side of raisin-flecked Napa cabbage slaw helps.) On a different night I tried it with the esca-beche, which Gordon envisions as a sweet finishing broth (rather than the traditional vinegar-laced preparation), mining it with Picholine olives and threads of saffron to send the fish in a Sardinian direction. Gorgeous.

That’s the sort of creativity I look forward to seeing more of. It’s apparent when he highlights the flavor of the Norwegian ocean trout, a fish one shade more assertive than arctic char, by using a sherry vinegar note in an asparagus puree. With sautéed Alaskan wild halibut he wilts fava bean leaves in a court bouillon that’s faint with white wine and peppercorns, a heady broth that seems to nod to pho. It’s a reminder that verities—in this case, how fresh herbs can bring almost anything to life—cut across national lines.

The desserts underscore a similar point: At first glance they’re steak house staples, and on second glance they are, too. Free of irony or allusion, they might feature a twist or two but are unabashed about their everyday roots. The ribbon of lime granité that runs through a quenelle of sweet milk sorbet accompanying a key lime pie is as creative as things get. Still, the pie does what it should, delivering a bracing kick, and while the multilayered chocolate cake is standard fare, anybody who likes chocolate cake would have a tough time moping over it.

Before Cimarusti left the kitchen in 2006, pastry chef Wonyee Tom would fry apple beignets to order and crown them with pecan ice cream. It’s tempting to be wistful over the Water Grill of that era, but I’m glad to see the restaurant get back on course. One night the person serving my table was a waitress I recognized from a decade of dining at Water Grill. Somebody was panning their iPhone across the glistening sea urchins, cherrystones, and crab claws that are splayed by the trio of oyster shuckers who occupy the prow of the bar. There was a game on the TV for the business travelers who were out on the town. In the background, flames would occasionally rise up from a stove in the kitchen. The room was hopping. At the end of the meal my waitress pressed an index finger to the tabletop’s exposed wood surface. “I miss my crumber,” she said, but I don’t think she meant it at all.       

Water Grill
544 South Grand Avenue, Downtown, 213-891-0900** 

Best Dishes: Raw bar, chowder, steamed clams, fish-and-chips, ocean trout with asparagus chutney, key lime pie 
Drinks: Excellent carafe selection, plentiful craft beers, full bar 
Atmosphere: Cheery 
Noise Level: Moderate 
Kid Friendliness: Come one, come all 
Price Range: $2.25 (single Bahia Falsa oyster) to $145 (“The King” iced shellfish platter) 
Hours: Mon.-Thu., 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m.; Fri., 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m.; Sat., 5 p.m.-11 p.m.; Sun., 4 p.m.-10 p.m. 
Parking: Valet, $8 
Reservations: Recommended
Credit Cards: All major