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Thrown for a Loup 

Water Grill’s split personality

Wednesday, Aug 15 2001
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The Water Grill, reliably corporate, has always been known for high-quality fresh seafood, and is the chosen downtown Los Angeles sanctum of the city’s discerning oyster lovers and other fruits de mer addicts. But is it a serious food lover‘s restaurant?

In recent years, the Water Grill has been named with increasing frequency on short -- very short -- lists of Los Angeles’ best restaurants. And so we come first for lunch, joining lawyers, guests from the Biltmore (the restaurant is just behind the hotel), executives and others in top tax brackets. The Water Grill, you see, is expensive, with lunch only marginally less ($2 per entree) than dinner.

The long, deep room has a distinctive big-city feel -- part bank, part chophouse, part luxury-hotel lobby. Beautiful, wide alabaster sconces temper the light; the carpet is aswirl in stylized waves; enormous, thick decorative columns add ballast. The wood is dark blond, the bar is long, the murals jaunty and nautical in theme. Waiters wear the short, tight white jackets of a cruise-ship staff. The service is impeccably smooth, the seafood impeccably fresh. But frankly, from starters to dessert, our midday meal is disappointing: The plates look lovely, but flavors are muted andor unexplored. Why are ripe heirloom tomatoes with sweet cool, lobster meat ceremoniously drowned in a bland green broth? Sushi-grade bluefin tuna that‘s chopped into a tartare layered with mashed avocado is numbingly mild -- salt, lemon, anything would help. Soft-shell crabs flown from Maryland and “dusted with five spice”seem flour-dredged, far too heavy for an August lunch.

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The house salade nicoise is seared Italian bluefin tuna sliced alongside a molded cylinder of compressed salad. At the touch of a tine, the cylinder breaks into greens, haricots verts, boiled red potato, nicoise olives -- high quality, but overdressed and underflavored, lacking in synergy, as a corporate consultant might say. Icelandic char has an admirable crust and is cooked flawlessly medium-rare; the dense flesh a beautiful translucent peach pink. But the accompanying morel mushrooms, fava beans and potato pancake don’t work together; whatever would unite or ignite the flavors is missing.

“That‘s always been the thing about the Water Grill,” one friend says. “Great ingredients, but no genius.” And for $168 (before tip) for three people at lunch, with no booze, at least a glint of genius -- or even liveliness -- is in order.

Dinner, some days later, proves a stunning about-face. Clearly, somebody else is at the stove. The food and presentation have the same sharp visual loveliness, but now the flavor volume is on full blast.

Ironically, the least interesting part of the meal is the pricey fruits de mer platter with mild malpeque oysters, briny clams, perfectly good crab and lobster. But it pales in the blast of condensed, heady summertime from fresh hamachi sashimi sprinkled with cilantro oil and topped with tiny, sweet, dead-ripe marinated cherry tomatoes. Alaskan wild salmon, crisp-crusted and translucent, comes on a bed of chewy lardons and green peas that pop like caviar, with puddles of a lawn green, lively chervil emulsion.

Grilled loup de mer proves to be a wildly tasty tour of the Mediterranean: The gorgeous skin-on French sea bass comes with grilled marinated calamari, braised mussels and clams, and a sprinkling of fennel pollen -- it’s the Cote d‘Azur on a plate. Suddenly, it’s clear that the chef, Michael Cimarusti, is no mere corporate caretaker.

Still, pastry chef Wonyee Tom‘s desserts strain for innovation at the expense of good taste. Sour-cherry sorbet one day has an unpleasant herbaceous tone -- geranium? -- and the poached nectarine is flaccid and flavorless. Why poach nectarines in their peak season? In a thin tart shell, with cooked and fresh strawberries, panna cotta is downright bouncy: The dish needs more juice, the custard less gelatin. More compelling is a dense, rich creme fraiche cheesecake with intriguing echoes of ginger (gingerbread crust, candied ginger garnish, ginger in the berry compote).

For seamless sleekness and fresh seafood, the Water Grill deserves its reputation. For sheer delight, especially at these prices, stick to dinner.

544 S. Grand Ave., downtown; (213) 891-0900. Open for lunch and dinner Mon.--Fri., and dinner on weekends. Full bar. Valet parking in adjacent garage. Entrees at dinner, $25 to $36. Major credit cards.

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