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Restaurant Review: Water Grill

Water Grill is a stunning ode to a SoCal seafood icon

By Troy Johnson | Photography by Sam Wells

Water Grill

615 J Street,

The Raw Bar (all of it)
Clam Chowder
Goat Cheese Ravioli

If the devil is in the details, then this place is a dark sort of beautiful. Every detail in the two-story, $5 million Water Grill in the Gaslamp has been painstakingly, lovingly attended to. The subway tiles on the pillars at the bar have their edges dressed in other, equally pretty tiles. Purse hooks are tucked under every purse-bearing surface. Even the saltshakers are heavy and nice.

The interior designer’s budget seems to have been, “Yes.”

I admit reticence in saying all this. Even though San Diego is just its third location, Water Grill—long the pinnacle of high-end seafood in Downtown L.A.—is now a chain. The word “chain” has become synonymous in America with viral mediocrity, bringing us everything from the Bloomin’ Onion to the Frosty to the latest made-in-sweatshop fashions. Chains tend to be faceless, drag-and-drop concepts run by corporations who couldn’t tell San Diego from Des Moines.

Plus, replication has its own diminishing effects. The Eiffel Tower is such a world treasure because there is exactly one of them. If you want to behold its steely, phallic magnitude, you have to go to Paris. If Paris decided to replicate the Eiffel Tower and gift the second version to the Gaslamp, how would San Diegans feel about it?

I’m guessing a little culturally imperialized. We’d feel our city didn’t have an idea of its own, so we borrowed one from a city who did.

That said, few local restaurateurs have the financial and organizational chutzpah to pull off this massive, 11,000-square-foot, marquee space in the high-rent Gaslamp District. So if you’re going to give me a chain, give me one like this.

Water Grill has been an L.A. icon for 25 years. Its star waned a few years ago as chefs left to create their own attractions (most notably, Michael Cimarusti opened Providence). But in 2011, its creators—Costa Mesa–based King’s Seafood Company, who also owns Lou & Mickey’s—pumped $1.5 million of new life into the original location. That being a terrific success, CEO Sam King doubled down with Water Grill in Santa Monica. Now he’s spared no expense ($5–6 million, reportedly) for their San Diego arrival at the spot recently vacated by The Palm.

Design-wise, San Diego’s location is very similar to the others.

A-ha! That’s the problem with chains! 

Only, in this case, it’s a compliment. It gives the corner of Sixth and J what it’s needed for a long time. Something that, frankly, their neighbor Jsix (at Kimpton’s Hotel Solamar) should’ve done years ago. They blew out the walls and let the sunny streets pour in. It’s two-way people watching.

Restaurant Review: Water Grill

Restaurant Review: Water Grill

GET YOUR GOAT: Goat cheese ravioli, brown butter, and Asian pear puree.

GET YOUR GOAT: Goat cheese ravioli, brown butter, and Asian pear puree.

Inside, tables are sturdy, dark wood, and varnished weekly—sometimes twice, according to our server. They feel soft and well-oiled, like furniture in rich relatives’ houses. The booths are soft, cushiony leather, like those Scotchgarded bomber jackets Tom Cruise wore in Top Gun. Even the underside of the bar has leather with metal nail head trim. The hardwood floors are impeccable. One wall features 55,000 shucked oyster shells behind wire. The street-facing façades boast automatic roll-up garage doors, and designers The Hatch Group smartly made the ledge at perfect elbow-resting height. So even without patio seating, you feel the outdoors.

There’s also a criminally underappreciated second floor, with a huge, ornate wooden bar and private dining room. Every table has plus-sized elbow room. The 350-capacity restaurant feels luxuriously spacious; think town car, not Smart Car.

Water Grill’s fame has always been focused at its great raw bar and hyper-fresh seafood, some of which live their final moments in kitchen aquariums visible from the dining room. (Guests can go look at the lobsters and king crabs.) Order a king crab or lobster and, much like Chinese restaurants who take seafood seriously, your dinner goes tank-to-plate.

Water Grill adds to the recent oyster boom in San Diego. Their 18 varieties are smartly separated into Eastern and Western. Easterners—like Chincoteagues or Naked Cowboys—are brinier, more mineral, flamboyant in their oysterness. Pacific varieties like malaspinas, Marin Miyagis, or Carlsbad blondes tend to be sweeter and mellower, with watermelon and cucumber notes. Alongside Baja stone crab claws, littleneck clams, live sea urchin, and lobster, a pretty dreamy afternoon could be spent at the raw bar alone.

Careful, though. “Water” might be rooted in the Latin term “per diem.” This is no plastic-bib, all-you-can-eat operation. That said, prices are slightly lower than the main competitor in the neighborhood, Oceanaire. Water Grill’s seafood is largely sustainable (Tahitian albacore, black cod from Morro Bay, plenty of “wild” options, etc.), which justifies costs. Buying unsustainable seafood from infested Asian farm ponds and processed in chemicals is cheap. Sourcing high-quality, untainted seafood is not. Simple as that, really.

In Water Grill’s kitchen is classically trained French chef Fabrice Poigin. Poigin is the real deal, a one-time assistant chef for former French president François Mitterand who oversaw the opening of the Manchester Grand Hyatt and served as executive chef for Mister A’s. Unsurprisingly, then, his seared Tahitian albacore tuna niçoise with haricot verts (French green beans) is excellent, with well-seared meat, quail eggs, marinated white anchovies, flageolets (French white beans), and a mustard vinaigrette. The other lunch option we try is the wild jumbo Maryland soft shell crab bánh mì. It’s pleasant, though tempura-frying shrimp and putting it on bread seems a tad carb-crazed for a lunch option in SoCal, and obscures the quality seafood. I’d prefer the shrimp nude, lightly dressed. We also try the crudo sampler, the best of which is, by far, the eastern scallops with togarashi rub, Japanese mustard aioli, pickled vegetable, and golden raisins. It tastes like I’d wanted the shrimp bánh mì to taste.

Restaurant Review: Water Grill

Restaurant Review: Water Grill

RAW POWER:Whole New Zealand pink bream, served ceviche style.

RAW POWER:Whole New Zealand pink bream, served ceviche style.

Over two nights, dinner is hit or miss. Service for all visits is phenomenal, with vest-sporting staff seemingly everywhere, responsive, and acutely educated about dishes. Training does wonders.

We love the clam chowder, served traditionally thin (chowder shouldn’t be gloppy stew) with fresh, in-shell clams and a subtle whiff of salty pork. Suckers for browned butter, we try the house-made ravioli stuffed with goat cheese and dressed with salted almonds and Asian pear purée. This may be the best dish on the menu. The tart goat cheese offsets the deeply caramel butter notes, balanced by the sweetness of the pear.

There are many ways to mess up crab cakes. They can be too enthusiastically seasoned, too mushy, too fried, too lubed with mayo, you name it. But Poigin’s lump blue crab cake is excellent, not over-fried, and full of luscious shredded crab chunks. It needs an acid, and the chef smartly includes enough house-made slaw for every bite.

We have less luck with the wild Spanish octopus, which is far too tough to eat. Our server immediately takes it away and removes it from our bill. We also struggle with the concept of the wild Tahitian bigeye tuna poke. Why would you take fresh, beautiful cubes of sushi-grade tuna, only to smother it in a such a thick, sweet concoction of chili paste and orange? This is how sushi chefs treat scraps for spicy tuna rolls. It tastes like a spicy marmalade, and is the epitome of the old cartoon anthem “Don’t Drown Your Food.”

It’s a split decision on entrées, too. They have four fresh catches of the day, served charcoal-grilled, oven-roasted with escabeche (whole fried), or ceviche style (ask for that; it’s not listed on menu). Our New Zealand pink bream, ceviche style, is very good. The fish head and tail are plated, and in between are raw slices of filet in lime, good olive oil, cilantro, and assorted microgreens. Good, clean eating and a stunning presentation. My wife’s sea bass is excellently sautéed with a crusty, tan sear and a light touch on the inner flesh, served over herbed ricotta gnudi (which taste too much of flour) and brown butter. Guess you’d call it an efficient dish. But it’s also a tad unremarkable, and could use a bold flavor somewhere.

Restaurant Review: Water Grill

Restaurant Review: Water Grill

GO BANANAS! Banana ice cream sundae with dark chocolate-covered corn flakes.

Our black cod with miso suffers from the opposite problem. Water Grill uses red miso, which is saltier and more pungent than the standard yellow miso. Applied too generously, it overwhelms the delicate cod, which is almost blackened due to excessive time in the pan. We’re also underwhelmed by the cioppino, which I consider a true test of any West Coast fish house, since it’s a San Francisco original. The seafood broth is thin, underdeveloped, and a tad flavorless. It needs more herbs, a little more time in the pot with aromatics (fennel, onions, bay leaves), Pernod, and/or wine. Some chefs prefer a delicate broth, and maybe Poigin does. But both of us crave more oomph.

If there’s a chief complaint, that seems to be it. Flavors seem geared to be inoffensive, rather than daring. There is a difference between letting good ingredients shine, and hanging them out to dry. When we overhear a nearby foursome talking about their own dish—suggesting spices, herbs, and other improvements—we realize we’re not alone.

That is not the case, however, with dessert. A caramel bread pudding with red Alaea Hawaiian sea salt comes topped with caramel ice cream. It’s hot and cold, crispy and soft, sweet and salty, good and good. The banana ice cream sundae, as well, with fresh hunks of banana and a brownie in the bottom of the old-fashioned sundae glass and topped with a dark chocolate cluster of corn flakes—is everything a soda jerk could ask for.

My ideal trip to Water Grill would include a bevy of raw seafood, cocktails, then the goat cheese ravioli, clam chowder, and crab cake to share. We’d sit by the front window, where we could appreciate San Diego’s natural resources and the restaurant’s fabricated ones, both equally seductive.

Restaurant Review: Water Grill

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