The extravagant, two-tiered seafood plateau is gorgeous enough to take your breath away. Arranged on ice and seaweed on the top are half a dozen coral-shelled heads-on Ecuadorian shrimp, Peruvian bay scallops dressed in a citrus pesto on their dainty crimson-and- white half shells, half a lobster, a dozen wild Mexican brown shrimp and a bevy of Prince Edward Island mussels. Arrayed around the bottom tier are three kinds of oysters, wild littleneck clams on the half shell, half a California Dungeness crab's worth of cracked claws and knuckles, a cluster of gray periwinkles from Massachusetts and a spiny Channel Islands red sea urchin.
The double-decker represents a $100-plus splurge (including $15.25 for the sea urchin added to the deluxe assortment), ordered in the hopes that it might redeem Water Grill, a splashy new seafood palace in Uptown.
Why, oh, why, would a restaurant need redemption? To understand, it's helpful to know something about Water Grill, and why its presence in Dallas (it debuted here in early January) is such a big deal.
For starters, Dallas suffers from a dearth of great – or even good – seafood restaurants. In fact, I can only conjure one great one: Montlake Cut, the Preston Center spot specializing in seafood of the Pacific Northwest that chef Nick Badovinus opened in late 2015. (There are a number of great Japanese places that specialize in seafood, as well, though they're not usually referred to as seafood restaurants.)
Water Grill, which first opened in downtown Los Angeles in 1989, has a long and important history in Southern California. Michael Cimarusti, now the star chef-owner of L.A.'s Providence – who was just named a finalist in this year's James Beard Awards – first made a name as chef there with his inventive, sophisticated seafood creations in 1997. He left seven years later, and the restaurant's owner, King's Seafood Co., took the kitchen in a different direction: simpler and more straightforward, focused on exquisite wild seafood and all manner of fabulous shellfish, simply prepared to show off its natural magnificence. In 2007, at the height of a national plâteau de fruits de mers trend, Water Grill thrilled L.A. diners – including me, when I was food editor at the Los Angeles Times – with its spectacular tiered, iced seafood platter. So much so that it inspired a cover story in that paper's Food section.
In 2013, King's began expanding Water Grill in Southern California, where there are now four locations. I stopped into the Santa Monica location a few years ago and was wowed by live Santa Barbara spot prawns and California spiny lobster, two spectacular Pacific Ocean natives.
So when news broke in 2015 that King planned to open its first Water Grill outside of Southern California right here in seafood-challenged Dallas, my spot-prawn-loving heart soared. And now, at long last, it has arrived.
The sprawling 7,500-square-foot space, with inviting oyster bar, covered patio and several dining rooms, looks much like Santa Monica's: reclaimed wood, white tile, chocolate-brown leather banquettes, tasteful nautical details. Walk by the glassed-in kitchen to see the tanks of live crustaceans: gnarly giant red king crabs, Dungeness crabs, lobsters and more. That's the exciting thing about Water Grill Dallas: Its highly seasonal menu of impeccably sourced seafood – including what swims in those tanks – changes constantly, and includes species rarely served away from the West Coast.
Over the course of my first three visits, the food was all over the map. While a trio of West Coast oysters on the half shell was glorious, a North Atlantic lobster was overcooked to rubberiness. Sweet grilled California spiny lobster with the right faintly bitter-almond edge was only slightly overdone; Dungeness crab lacked the exquisite sweetness for which it's known. But then, one night, I lucked into Santa Barbara spot prawns. Wow: These were succulent, beautifully charcoal-grilled, sweet as the best lobster but a little wild, and some were bursting with roe, which has a marvelous sandy texture that's hard to describe and a delicate lobstery-prawny flavor. (Diners who don't like roe can order them roeless.)
A lemony Caesar salad spun from bitter greens delighted; not so the grilled octopus that would have been seriously oversalted even without all those niçoise olives. A whole roasted Dover sole bathed in a lot of butter was fine – and at $46 per pound, expensive, like everything else. A big lusty bowl of cioppino was likable, and my friends and I loved our first few bites of impossibly rich and buttery pommes purées, until an alarming pool of melted butter seeped out the top (impossibly rich, indeed!). A special one night, uni toasts, would have been winners had they not been oozing butter.
One of the biggest disappointments was a shrimp Louie. This was a slapdash collage of seven seriously overcooked jumbo shrimp (what a waste); thick slices of bacon; a sliced avocado half; two deviled egg halves; a dish of Louie dressing; and a pile of pickled ginger slivers (huh?). Nobody bothered to slice the half-tomato. Attacking this $28 assemblage, which included a few leathery-edged leaves of Boston lettuce, but no greens you'd actually want to eat, was more like raiding a fridge than enjoying a salad.
The service was wildly uneven, too – top-notch one night, amateurish another. On a frosty February evening, an AC vent blasted icy air straight down onto our heads. We were offered another table, but loved our comfortable banquettes, so we stayed. (How funny – and weird – that they keep heavy woolen blankets on hand!) And not just service at the table: One night I was denied a reservation between 6:30 and 7:30, only to walk into a mostly empty dining room at 6:15. At 7:30 the place was no more than half-full. ("We do not book the entire dining room with reservations to allow flexibility and walk-in guests," explained a spokeswoman for the restaurant later. Flexibility for anyone but a guest trying to reserve, it would seem.)
So, back to the impressive-looking seafood plateau. If anything can sway the review one way or the other, it is this two-tiered wonder. We have entered the piscatorial equivalent of sudden-death overtime.
First, the rest of tonight's dinner. A whole, charcoal-grilled gulf red snapper is gorgeously cooked, with delicious, delicate flesh. Wonderful. But a $28 lobster roll is underdressed and wan-tasting;
Brussels sprouts are cooked to mush; a $48-per-pound wild Alaskan king crab leg arrives woefully overcooked and dried-out.
So we're down to the seafood platter. If it's even decent, there's enough seafood here to make a fabulous dinner for three.
My two guests and I dive in.
Verdict: Most everything cooked is overcooked: the lobster, the dozen Mexican shrimp, the half-dozen Ecuadorians, the Dungeness crab. The periwinkles are steamed hard as pencil erasers. The mussels taste like they've been boiled in plain water, flavorless. Two of the three types of oysters – Blue Pool from Washington state and St. Simon from New Brunswick, Canada – are lovely; the third, a knife-and-fork-size gulf creature called Rattlesnake Reef isn't something I'd eat raw again. And the sea urchin? Blackened and spotty, it tastes like a polluted tide pool. You can look at it to know it should never have been served.
Water Grill, you've got some work to do.
Water Grill (2 stars)
Price: $$$$ (Oysters $2.70 to $3.70 apiece; seafood platters $47 to $165; fish and shellfish by the pound $10 to $52. Lunch appetizers, salads and sandwiches $8 to $26; main courses $19 to $43. Brunch plates $11 to $21. Dinner appetizers, salads and sandwiches $8 to $28; main courses $27 to $60. Desserts $9 to $11.)
Service: Generally quite attentive, sometimes top-notch and thoroughly professional, other times amateurish
Ambience: A sprawling, attractive space with several dining areas, an oyster bar, a covered patio with retractable roof and a glassed-in kitchen. A central bar is outfitted with 16 video screens – an annoying intrusion into an otherwise appealing and comfortable space.
Noise level: Medium. Conversation was never too difficult, though.
Location: 1920 McKinney Ave., Dallas; 214-306-7111; watergrill.com
Hours: Sunday-Thursday 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., Friday-Saturday 11 a.m. to midnight. Brunch Saturday-Sunday 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Credit cards: All major
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Alcohol: Full bar. A wide-ranging midsize wine list offers plenty of great whites to complement the seafood, but not much for the adventurer.