For a city with a 100-mile coast, L.A. has a shocking lack of coastal restaurants. Places where diners might simultaneously eat and gaze at the ocean are few — even fewer if eating well is a priority. And until recently, this seaside city suffered from another strange deficiency. There was really only one game in town when it came to upscale, dedicated seafood restaurants: Water Grill downtown.
Even now, with the proliferation of new seafood spots in town, Water Grill is the grande dame. Recently opened seafood joints aim for the rowdy fun of a contemporary clam shack (Fishing With Dynamite, Connie and Ted's, littlefork), or to be classy and casual neighborhood bistros (Hungry Cat, L&E Oyster Bar). Yes, there's Providence, but I'd argue that rather than being a seafood restaurant, it's a restaurant that serves a lot of seafood — and certainly its lofty, almost unattainable luxury puts it out of reach of even some diners on an expense account.
Water Grill remains the standard-bearer. Last year its look and menu were updated to attract a younger clientele, but its pedigree went unchanged. The restaurant also can claim the distinction of being a spawning ground for fish-obsessed cooks — both Fishing With Dynamite's David LeFevre and Connie & Ted's Michael Cimarusti were chefs there before striking out on their own.
Given all this, it was welcome news when owner Sam King announced that he was bringing a new Water Grill to the actual water rather than miles away in a downtown hotel. Located where Santa Monica Boulevard meets the Pacific, just two blocks north of the Santa Monica Pier, the second location of the classic replaces Ocean Avenue Seafood, which was owned by King's company. Unlike that restaurant, which in recent years had felt outdated in both its menu and decor, the new Water Grill gives Ocean Avenue a serious seafood destination smack in the midst of the tourist traps and swank hotels.
Giant windows open onto the street, across which you can see the Pacific, even from the booths along the restaurant's back wall. Inside, it looks both old-school and high-design, with an antique nautical theme that feels part ship's galley and part Grand Central Oyster Bar. Some walls are covered in rustic wood, others in subway tiles, and others still in dramatic diagrams of ancient ships. Overstuffed, tawny leather booths give the back wall a turn-of-the-century clubby vibe, and sitting there you might imagine you're a New York gangster on a very pleasant, slightly rowdy ocean voyage. The decor may conjure some mixed visual signals, but they're quite compatible.
Apart from the view, the best reason to come here is the raw bar. There's a fantastic selection of oysters, and the iced shellfish platters both here and downtown are one of L.A.'s great treats. The smallest (dubbed "the Grand") is one of the few things on the menu that could be described as a bargain: For $39, you get four oysters, two cherrystone clams, two Peruvian scallops, six shrimp, six mussels, half a lobster and a smattering of periwinkles that you pry from their shells with tiny plastic picks. It's enough to satisfy two people easily, an affordable indulgence. Water Grill's greatest strength, the quality of its product, is evident here: sweet, tender lobster meat; fat, briny oysters; mussels and shrimp that pop with freshness.
That freshness carries over to the rest of the menu, where you can order just about any type of fish or shellfish, prepared simply or as a composed dish. Want a whole bowl full of Santa Barbara spot prawns, or a whole Santa Barbara sea urchin for that matter? No problem. You can get a whole New Zealand pink bream or a loup de mer from Europe — they come charcoal-grilled and served simply with butter and a smattering of capers.
There are very well-prepared classic cocktails to pair with all this, and a wine list that covers the world, and covers it well. Plenty of crowd-pleasers adorn the list, presumably to satisfy the hoards of tourists pouring into the place, but there also are interesting finds from lesser-known French regions, affordable Burgundies, a good selection of German and Austrian wines, and more.
Where the restaurant runs into trouble is with the execution of certain plated dishes. A presentation of assorted crudo lines up squares of the fish on a rectangular slate platter. It's gorgeous — yet none of the fish is adorned with enough acid or salt, and all three came to the table at room temperature and in large hunks. It was a tad disconcerting to chomp down on an almost-warm, fairly large and slightly sinewy mouthful of raw sea trout, especially because the freshness and quality were obvious. It seemed such a waste.
Huge, slightly overripe hunks of tomato in the heirloom tomato salad lacked seasoning, and the timid poppyseed dressing didn't bridge the flavor gap, making for a salad that was more of a dutiful slog than the anticipated summery accompaniment. And a wild Alaskan sablefish, which is inherently buttery in nature, was cooked in so much butter that it tasted quite like a grilled cheese sandwich. Served over wild mushrooms that also had been doused in butter, it was decadent to the point of inedibility.
Despite being open less than two months, the place already operates like a precisely calibrated engine, which is what you might expect of an outfit like Water Grill. (It may help that much of the staff from Ocean Avenue Seafood has stayed on in the new concept, including chef Tom Rummel, who had previously been kitchen manager. Downtown chef Damon Gordon oversees both menus, along with King's Seafood "culinary director" Brian Okada.) With 8,700 square feet and about a bazillion diners coming through daily, it's impressive to watch the graceful but furiously paced dance of the service staff.
The formal but friendly tone is just right. Water glasses are perpetually, magically full; empty plates are whisked away before you know it; and you'll never be without a cocktail or glass of wine, if that's your desire.
All of this makes the new Water Grill a little strange to assess. For the service, raw bar, quality of product, wine list and view (both interior and exterior), there is no better place in this part of Santa Monica to eat. And thank God we finally have somewhere decent to feed all those tourists coming through the doors. But the cooking, particularly the more creative dishes, could use some help in the execution. The tweaks needed are small — colder crudo, seasoned salads, a lighter hand with the butter — but would have a huge effect on the overall experience.
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In the meantime, I'll happily settle into one of those big leather booths, order a platter of cold shellfish and a bottle of Jurancon Sec, and bask in the ocean breeze coming in though those huge, Pacific-facing windows. To have two great L.A. deficiencies — restaurants on the water; restaurants inspired by the water — remedied by Water Grill feels like destiny.
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WATER GRILL | Three stars | 1401 Ocean Ave., Santa Monica | (310) 394-5569 | watergrill.com | Sun.-Thurs., 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m.; Fri. & Sat., 11:30 a.m.-mid. | Entrees, $26-$44 (more for seafood by the pound) | Full bar | Valet parking