At Water Grill, the raw bar rules. Always has. And in downtown Los Angeles, Water Grill is an institution on the order of Tadich Grill in San Francisco (though not nearly as old). I don't know what it is about being away from home, but it seems to bring out a craving for seafood. Conventioneers and tourists staying in hotels downtown zero in on this long-established restaurant to slurp oysters, crack crab legs and generally make merry.
The location in the 1922 PacMutual Building with its crenellated carved ceiling, richly textured marble walls and ornate brass doors is a big part of its appeal. But the restaurant itself was due for an overhaul when the King brothers, who own this and a slew of other restaurants, closed Water Grill for a month-long $1.5-million renovation last year. They reopened in late January with a new look, a new menu and a new chef.
FOR THE RECORD:
Water Grill review: In the May 19 edition of Saturday, a review of Water Grill described restaurateurs Sam and Jeff King as brothers. They are cousins. —
Remember, this is the kitchen that Michael Cimarusti (Providence) and David LeFevre (MB Post) once commanded. Under their respective tenures, Water Grill was known for its high-concept menus based on impeccably fresh seafood flown in from all over the world. And while all that made for great reviews, the restaurant might well have been too ambitious for much of the dining public. Most people just want a nice piece of fish, a whole Dungeness crab, broiled lobster or a few dozen Pacific oysters.
And now that's what the King brothers are giving them.
The menu still features the extravagant raw bar selections — at least 10 kinds of oysters, wild Florida jumbo stone crab claws, Channel Island red sea urchin and three sizes of iced shellfish platters. But everything else is very different. Today's Water Grill is more a straightforward seafood house than a fine dining restaurant that is aiming to set the culinary world on fire. And that's not necessarily a bad thing.
The new chef, Damon Gordon, is a Brit who's worked at Quarter Kitchen at the Andaz hotel in San Diego and in New York at Mix and Hotel Gansevoort and also headed up kitchens in Miami andWashington, D.C.
He's brought, among other things, an excellent rendition of fish 'n' chips made with wild Atlantic cod. The dense fish comes as one giant piece encased in a batter cooked to a dark gold. Inside, the fish is juicy and flakes into big firm pieces. The Brits' thick-cut "chips" are close to our steak fries and come with a bottle of malt vinegar for sprinkling over. The vinegar against the salt makes complete sense.
The kitchen excels at frying. The fritto misto appetizer is a wonderful medley of seafood — wild calamari, Mexican bay scallops, white shrimp, various fish — and vegetables with two dipping sauces, a smoky marinara and a Greek tzatziki (yogurt with cucumbers).
Ever since a colleague at my work study job cooked me my first Julia Child dinner, I've been a sucker for shrimp Louie salad. Gordon's version is deconstructed, the fat meaty shrimp, lettuce, avocado and everything else all laid out on the plate to dress at your discretion. Good, but a little less festive than the classic.
You could, though, order a dozen littleneck clams on the half shell with their unbeatable briny goodness. I splurged one night on half a Dungeness crab from cold Northwestern waters and almost wished I'd ordered an entire one. The kitchen does some of the hard work for you, cracking the legs and claws, but not too much — you still have the pleasure of ferreting out those delicious little morsels of crabmeat and sucking out the juices.
The iced seafood platters, especially the medium-size one for $75, are very generous for the price, easily enough for three or four to share, and piled with meaty shrimp, oysters, clams, beautiful mussels, crab, lobster and other things.
The chef has streamlined the main-course items, keeping them mostly straightforward and unencumbered with foams or complex sauces. Not as many exotics as Cimarusti ordered in his heyday or as complicated or stunning in their preparations. But on the other hand, prices, though still rather high (top-quality seafood is never inexpensive), are lower than before.
You couldn't exactly call the menu exciting, but I don't think that was their intent. This time around the King brothers are going for an old-fashioned seafood house, which is maybe what Water Grill should have been all along.
After a $1.5-million redo, Water Grill reopens as the seafood house it was always meant to be, with straightforward cooking from Brit Damon Gordon.
Location: 544 S. Grand Ave., Los Angeles, (213) 891-0900, http://www.watergrill.com.
Price: Raw bar, $2.25 to $145; dinner appetizers, $6 to $27; salads and sandwiches, $9 to $32; main courses, $26 to $44; whole fish, $28 to $44 per pound; sides, $6 to $9; desserts, $9.
Details: Open 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday to Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday, 5 to 11 p.m. Saturday and 4 to 10 p.m. Sunday. No corkage fee. Valet parking, $5 for up to two hours; $8 for more than two hours.